Mystery of ‘Salvator Mundi’, the most expensive painting in the world – arts & culture
Later this year, the Louvre in Paris will host an exhibition of masterpieces by Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci to mark his death 500 years ago in France.
But the work, which in recent months has come under intense scrutiny from the media and Da Vinci scholars, may not be on display.
In 2017, “Salvator Mundi” was auctioned by Christie’s as a da Vinci work for a record $ 450 million. But it has not been on public display since, raising doubts about its owner, location and authenticity.
The painting, a portrait of Jesus, was to be exhibited at Louvre Abu Dhabi in September of last year. But its unveiling was postponed by the museum without any explanation.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi has remained silent on the identity of the buyer, saying only that the emirate’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism had “acquired” it.
And the mystery was further deepened before the visit of Italian President Sergio Mattarella who will join French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday on a trip to the Loire Valley to mark the anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519, at the age of 67.
“The Louvre has asked the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Culture and Tourism for the loan of the painting,” a Louvre spokesperson told AFP.
“But we haven’t had an answer yet.”
Outlawed by Islam?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the buyer of the photo was Saudi Prince Badr bin Abdullah, acting on behalf of the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He never confirmed or denied the report.
Prince Badr was appointed head of the kingdom’s culture ministry in a government reshuffle in June.
Saudi Arabia and the neighboring United Arab Emirates are very close allies who are both militarily engaged in the war against rebels in Yemen.
Read also: UAE postpones Da Vinci unveiling at Louvre Abu Dhabi
Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) is also a close confidant of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed who, along with Macron, opened Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the first foreign institution to bear the name of the great Parisian museum.
The painting’s disappearance comes as MBS’s international reputation has been damaged by the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, in which he denies any involvement.
Artprice, the leading art market information service, said clerics from Sunni Islam’s main authority, Al Azhar University in Cairo, told MBS that the painting could not be exhibited for religious reasons.
Jesus is considered a prophet within Islam, which prohibits any physical representation of God. But the picture portrays him as a savior and therefore a deity.
“Nothing from Leonardo”
Many art experts are still not convinced of the authenticity of the painting.
“Some details are very revealing,” said Jacques Franck, a specialist in Leonardo’s technique, pointing to the misrepresentation of a finger and other “anatomically impossible” elements.
He said that at the time when the canvas was painted, da Vinci had some paintings made in his studio because he himself had very little time.
Daniel Salvatore Schiffer, another expert on Vinci, also believes that the painting was not done by the Italian master.
“When you analyze the details, nothing is Leonardo, he does not have his mind.”
Ben Lewis, an art historian who wrote “The Last Leonardo,” said the National Gallery in London, which exhibited the painting in 2011, had disregarded the advice of five experts sent to authenticate table.
Although two of them believed it was genuine, another did not believe it, and the others weren’t sure. But the painting was presented at the exhibition as a real work of Leonardo da Vinci.
But Diane Modestini, who worked on the restoration of the painting from 2005, said she did not understand the controversy, insisting that “Leonardo da Vinci painted it”.
A spokesperson for Christie’s said: “We maintain the extensive research and scholarship that led to the award of this painting in 2010. No new discussion or speculation since the 2017 sale at Christie’s has caused us to review his position.”
“Reputation and credibility”
The Louvre says its exhibition, due to open in Paris in the fall, will bring together “a unique group of works of art that only the Louvre could bring together” in addition to its own exceptional collection of Leonardo.
But it remains to be seen whether people will be able to draw their own conclusions when they actually see the “Salvator Mundi”.
“If the Louvre has still not received an answer (from Abu Dhabi) months before the exhibition, it is because the work will not be exhibited there”, specifies Franck.
Schiffer said this could end up being a positive thing for the Parisian gallery, which could see its “reputation and credibility tarnished” if the work is on display.