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Sat 26 Oct 2019 12:33 AM

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The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

Leonardo da Vinci's 'lost' painting, Salvator Mundi, which was auctioned for $450.3m back in 2017, was the most expensive painting ever sold

The mystery of the most expensive painting ever sold

Mystifying Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, Salvator Mundi, has been shrouded in mystery

The masterpiece was supposed to go on public display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last September but, despite the auction taking place almost two years ago, it hasn’t been seen since.

$450.3m is a lot of money, that’s for sure. To put it in perspective, with that kind of cash you could buy your own personal Airbus A380 superjumbo or a 500-foot mega-yacht. Yet on November 15, 2017, that’s precisely how much an unnamed bidder paid for a work of art that was alleged to have been painted by Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci – the highest price paid for any painting ever sold, and by quite a margin too. The winning bidder was rumoured to be Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, although it was later ‘confirmed’ by Christie’s of New York to be the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. The painting in question, Salvator Mundi (Latin for Saviour of the World), was to go on permanent display in the Louvre Abu Dhabi – a coup for the region, and a statement of intent for the fledgling gallery. But almost two years later, the painting has still not re-surfaced. Rumors abound, and the painting has been dropped from an exhibition at the Louvre Paris to mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death. While its whereabouts are unknown, the artwork’s eye-watering selling price has ensured that it has not been forgotten about.

Salvator Mundi is an enigma. Widely disputed as being an original da Vinci. Many art historians believe that the painting of Christ was, in fact, painted by one of the master’s apprentices rather than by the man himself. Although the origins are impossible to confirm, one thing is for certain – the artwork has had extensive re-touching over the centuries and much of what is actually visible to the viewer is not from the hand of the original painter, whoever that may be. By 2005, the work was in a state of deterioration, significantly damaged and obscured by clumsy overpainting after multiple restoration attempts. It was entrusted to famed art restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who spent three years painstakingly restoring the work. While the astronomical selling price has put the painting under the spotlight, a colourful history only adds to the intrigue.

“After an extensive restoration, the painting was finally authenticated as a genuine Leonardo in 2011 by the National Gallery in London, and with that, its market value skyrocketed”

Long thought to be a copy of a lost original, Salvator Mundi is estimated to date back to around 1500, a commission by the French King Louis XII. Later owned by the British royal family, its whereabouts were unknown during the 18th and 19th centuries after it went missing from the Royal collection, and it didn’t re-emerge until 1900, by which time it was damaged from previous restoration attempts and was attributed to Leonardo apprentice, Bernardino Luini. The painting was sold at auction in 1958 for only £45 ($58), but this time as a work by another Leonardo pupil, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. In 2005 it was acquired by a consortium of art dealers at an estate sale in the US for only $10,000, but by this time it had been heavily overpainted. It was then that the painting was brought to restorer Modestini, wrapped in a bin liner, to work her magic. After an extensive restoration, the painting was finally authenticated as a genuine Leonardo in 2011 by the National Gallery in London, and with that, its market value skyrocketed.

Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, acquired it from Sotheby’s in a private sale in 2013 for $75m and subsequently sold it to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127m, a mark-up so huge that it was part of a legal dispute after Rybolovlev accused Bouvier of fraud. Regardless of its authenticity or the extensive renovation of the painting over the years, the story is a fascinating one.

In June 2018, seven months after the sale, the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi  announced that Salvator Mundi would go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi from September onwards but, two weeks before it was due to be unveiled, the launch was postponed indefinitely without explanation. The painting was due to take pride of place in a huge exhibition in the Louvre Paris kicking-off this month to mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, but even that too has been cancelled, apparently because curators at the Louvre do not believe it can be attributed solely to the artist. The ongoing silence only adds to the mystery.

While the auction house confirmed that the new owner was the Abu Dhabi government, a US intelligence assessment has since concluded that the true buyer was in fact Prince Mohammed Bin Salman after all, using a minor member of the Saudi royal family as an intermediary. The report has subsequently been disputed by the Saudi embassy.

With such a jumbled account of the paintings ownership, and silence from the parties involved on its whereabouts, rumours circulate as to what has happened to it. Reports began surfacing that the painting had gone missing, that its condition had deteriorated, or that the Louvre could be having second thoughts about its attribution as an original Leonardo. Whatever has happened to Salvator Mundi, one thing is for sure, the record-breaking selling price, coupled with the mystery surrounding its history, has put the painting firmly in the public eye.

As Saudi Arabia gets ready to open its doors to tourists from around the world, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a surprise to see the painting becoming the centrepiece of a future Saudi museum. If and when it does ever make a public appearance again, you can bank on plenty of column inches and an audience lining up to get a glimpse.


Robert McGovern, digital strategist