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“Mundi” Conundrum: Latest Head-Spinning Chapter in Tangled Trajectory of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”

Another bizarre twist has been added the convoluted tale of the modern odyssey of Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Salvator Mundi,” bought anonymously at Christie’s on Nov. 15 for $450.3 million.

The latest news, posted today on Christie’s website, is this:

And here’s this morning’s tweet from the Louvre Abu Dhabi:

The ambiguity of “was acquired” in that tweet leaves many questions unanswered: Is this a permanent acquisition or a borrowed work, over which Abu Dhabi will have (possibly temporary) custody? Does Abu Dhabi’s DCT and/or the Louvre Abu Dhabi actually own the work? Neither is described as the entity that bought the painting at the Christie’s auction.

Is it possible that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was described today in a front-page Wall Street Journal piece as the buyer of the work at auction (through a proxy), had acquired it with the intention of transferring it into what he regards as safe hands?

“Prince Mohammed’s extravagant purchase of  ‘Salvator Mundi,’ the only da Vinci in private hands, comes at a time of deep economic and political uncertainty in Saudi Arabia,” the WSJ noted, adding that “the crown prince had “recently launched an anticorruption crackdown that netted other Saudi princes, government ministers and prominent businessmen.”

Here’s what The National, the United Arab Emirates’ English-language newspaper, today reported:

Louvre Abu Dhabi has confirmed it will display “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci after the $450 million (Dh1.65 billion) artwork was acquired by the government [emphasis added]. In a tweet, the newly opened museum said it was looking forward to putting the masterpiece on display in Abu Dhabi.

Saudi sources confirmed to The National that western newspaper reports that the painting had been bought by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were wrong. Instead it is the UAE that has landed the prized work, which will now go on display at the museum, which is at the heart of a fast emerging cultural district in the capital.

The WSJ piece (online yesterday), for which art-market reporter Kelly Crow was one of three co-authors, said that the lesser known Saudi prince who was ID’d as the buyer by David Kirkpatrick on the front page of yesterday’s NY TimesPrince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed—had been the “nominal winner” at Christie’s, but merely served as a proxy for the crown prince. The WSJ attributed its identification of the crown prince as the buyer to “people with direct knowledge” of information in U.S. intelligence reports.

When I asked the Louvre if it was planning to borrow the painting for its planned Leonardo exhibition in Paris, its spokesperson told me this:

Concerning the 2019 Musée du Louvre exhibition about Leonardo da Vinci, the museum is currently working on the list of the loans. It is too early to communicate on that list.

One thing’s for sure: This is not your standard art-market story. You may need to have possession of this crystal ball to be able to predict what happens next:

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

an ArtsJournal blog