Heaven help us: where’s the missing $450m ‘Da Vinci’?
The world’s most expensive painting has disappeared. Is the Saudi owner embarrassed because it’s a fake?
In 2017 Christie’s smashed the world record for a painting at auction when it sold Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) for $450m. The painting was sold after a breathtaking war between two anonymous telephone bidders sent the price soaring. It was later revealed that the winning bid had been placed by Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The painting had already had a long and murky history and for years had not been accepted as the work of Da Vinci. It was originally bought in 1958 for $60 and was then thought to be the work of Bernardo Luini, a follower of Da Vinci’s. In 2005 it was rediscovered in the US before being restored in 2007, studied for four years by a plethora of art fundis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and included in a 2011 blockbuster Da Vinci show at London’s National Gallery. Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev subsequently bought it before it was put up for auction in 2017.
After its purchase by al-Saud the painting was scheduled to be shown at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September last year. However the unveiling was postponed and the Saudi government announced that it would provide further details of when the public could expect to see the painting. Since then there’s been no word and the Louvre Abu Dhabi doesn’t seem to be too concerned – much to the irritation and curiosity of the art world which loves nothing more than a good excuse to gossip and put forward wild hypotheses.
The Guardian has speculated that the painting is been withheld because of excessive restoration leaving noticeable streaks on the surface of the work, alluded to by the Met’s former director Thomas Campbell in a recent Instagram post. New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote an article in which he claimed the art world has been whispering that the painting is a fake after all and no one would want to display a $450m embarrassment. Neither the Louvre nor the painting’s owner has confirmed or denied any of these claims.
The mystery of the painting was reignited last week when a report on by the website Online Narativ claimed that the painting may be the casualty of an FBI investigation into the work’s previous owner (Rybolovlev has been questioned in Monaco in relation to accusations of corruption and influence peddling).
Rybolovlev also bought President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach home in 2008 for $95m but the White House has denied that the president has an ongoing relationship with the Russian. The report also suggested that the real embarrassment for the painting’s owner is not its condition but its price tag: compared to the painting’s previous price of $127.5m when it sold in 2013, $450m is a little steep. Either way, for now the whereabouts of the world’s most expensive painting are a mystery and, until it appears, the art world will continue to gleefully whisper over champagne and canapés.