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More “Mundi” Conundrums: Exactly Who Paid the Leonardo’s Princely Price (and why)?

In my Friday post about those said to have “acquired” the $450.3-million Leonardo da Vinci, I suggested that the convoluted “Salvator Mundi” story was still developing and hard to predict.

Sure enough, a mere two hours after my post appeared, Kelly Crow and Summer Said of the Wall Street Journal added a new twist:

The Leonardo da Vinci painting acquired for $450.3 million by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] will be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum—a gift from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates [emphasis added] said a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

Really?!? Nice gift!

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi,” c. 1500

But there were more twists still to come. For those keeping score, here’s a play-by-play of the action so far:

—On Dec. 6, David Kirkpatrick of the NY Times broke the story online that Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a “little-known Saudi prince…with no history as a major art collector and no publicly known source of great wealth,” had bought the Leonardo at Christie’s on Nov. 15. This implausible “scoop” was thinly sourced, attributed only to unspecified “documents provided from inside Saudi Arabia.”

—On Dec. 7, the Wall Street Journal‘s Shane Harris, Kelly Crow and Summer Said reported online that Prince Bader was merely a proxy for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This information, the WSJ said, came from “U.S. intelligence reports, according to people with direct knowledge of the information.” That sounded more likely and seemed more firmly based. On that same day, the NY Times posted a story by Kirkpatrick and two other writers, stating that Crown Prince Mohammed was the “true buyer” of the Leonardo, according to “American officials [what kind of “officials”?] and an Arab[?!?] familiar with the arrangement.”

—On Dec. 8, the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington announced that “the art work was acquired by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism for display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi….Prince Bader, as a friendly supporter of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, …was subsequently asked by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to act as an intermediary purchaser for the piece.” There was no mention of Crown Prince Mohammed, who perhaps had opted to be omitted from this narrative. Why the Abu Dhabi DCT would call upon a Saudi prince to act as intermediary remained unexplained.

—Also on Dec. 8, the NY Times posted a new piece (introduced by a link to the Saudi embassy’s statement) that acknowledged the confusion over who had bought the painting.

—On Dec. 9, the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin posted a piece about the efforts to uncover the truth about this transaction, in which she again named Prince Bader as the buyer, even though her paper had published the above-mentioned Dec. 7 update by Kirkpatrick and two other reporters, identifying Crown Prince Mohammed as “the true buyer.” Robin acknowledged that there had been “conflicting reports.”

—Yesterday (Dec. 11), both CNN Money and Gulf News (the Dubai-based, English-language newspaper) reported that Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, the Northeastern University-educated chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, had stated that Abu Dhabi was the purchaser of the Leonardo.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak

The Gulf News report included this quote from the DCT’s chairman: “We worked very closely with the broker on this piece and we bid on it [emphasis added] and it was acquired, thank God, with the price we felt it was right for. We have been eyeing this piece for some time.”

Are you still with me, art-lings?

These varying accounts seem to suggest that if the crown prince had, in fact, bought the Leonardo, he might have had second thoughts about taking credit: The Times wrote that making such an extravagant purchase “might be awkward,” in light of his recent “sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the elite of the kingdom.” The possibility of “offending Muslim sensibilities” was also raised by both the Times and WSJ, implying that it might be a dicey gambit for the crown prince to lavish an unheard-of amount of money on the image of Jesus as the world’s savior.

Puzzling to me was the WSJ’s attribution of its information to “sources with knowledge of U.S. intelligence.” I’m not surprised that U.S. authorities might be tracking big shifts of assets by key international players, but I wonder why intelligence sources would have leaked such information (if, in fact, that’s what they did).

I’m too removed from the intrigues of international maneuverings to unravel this tangled tale. In a comment at the end of my last post (which was quoted by Bloomberg‘s Katya Kazakina), I observed that “this is not your standard art-market story. You may need to have possession of this [“Salvator Mundi’s”] crystal ball to be able to predict what happens next.”

You may also need to have access to sources in the C.I.A., not just the artworld. That said, I had hoped artworld sources could have helped me with one simple question that no one seems yet to have answered:

When will visitors to the Louvre Abu Dhabi be able to see “Salvator Mundi”?

The Louvre’s press office referred me to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, whose press office had failed to reply to my emails inquiring about various “Mundi” conundrums. The museum’s website provides scant information about what artworks are currently on view, astonishingly says nothing about the Leonardo, and appears to have no “search” function for those seeking specific information.

Because Kirkpatrick’s NY Times scoop (linked above) reported that the buyer would pay for the painting in “six monthly installments,” I wondered if Christie’s was holding on to it until it’s fully paid for. To answer this, I turned to someone I knew and respected:

Erin McAndrew, center, head of corporate communications for Christie’s America, flanked by its contemporary art co-chairmen Alex Rotter, left, and Loic Gouzer (both of whom fielded Leonardo bids on the night of the sale)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what I asked Erin McAndrew:

—Has the painting been released to the buyer (whoever that is), or does it remain in Christie’s custody until the full amount is paid?

—Do you have any insight into how long it will be until “Salvator Mundi” is put on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi? Will that not happen until the full price is paid?

I ended by asking her to “please keep me in the loop if there is any further information you can provide in what still seems to be a developing story.”

To which Erin replied:

We have no information to share on these. Happy to keep you in the loop where we can.

Is there anyone who can “keep me in the loop” on this loopy story?

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