Row over Salvator Mundi's links to da Vinci revealed in new film

Did Mohammed bin Salman pay $450M for a ‘da Vinci’ artwork Leonardo DIDN’T create? Saudis left furious amid claims the master merely ‘contributed’ to the world’s most expensive painting

  • Salvator Mundi sold for a record-breaking $450million at auction in 2017
  • But questions were quickly raised over whether it is a ‘true’ da Vinci work 
  • French experts, speaking in a new film, say Saudi Prince bin Salman pressured the French government to display it in the Louvre as 100% da Vinci’s work 
  • But they refused, saying the master only ‘contributed’ to the artwork 

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman may have paid a $450million for a Leonardo da Vinci painting that the artist did not actually create, according to a new documentary.

The new film, by documentary-maker Antoine Vitkine, delves into the row playing out between Riyadh and Paris over the authenticity of ‘Salvator Mundi’ – an artwork promoted as the ‘male Mona Lisa’ before it sold for the record sum in 2017. 

In it, senior French officials advising the government say Bin Salman had demanded that the French government display the artwork inside the Louvre alongside the Mona Lisa and present it as 100 per cent da Vinci’s work.

But, they say, their analysis shows that – while the painting was produced in one of da Vinci’s workshops – the master himself only ‘contributed’ to the work.

Salvator Mundi sold for a record-breaking $450million at Christie’s in New York in 2017, but has been left out of major gallery shows since amid doubts about its authenticity

That analysis and the ensuing row explains why the painting failed to appear as planned at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2018, and then at a blockbuster da Vinci show by the Louvre in Paris the following year. 

‘Things turned incomprehensible,’ says one French official in the film – The Savior for Sale, which premiers on French TV this week. 

‘The request by ‘MBS’ (bin Salman) was very clear: show the Salvator Mundi next to the Mona Lisa, and present it as 100 percent a da Vinci.’

The Saudis offered various deals, the official says, but his recommendation to the Elysee was that this would amount to ‘laundering a $450 million artwork’.

The documentary alleges that some members of the French government, including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, lobbied on behalf of bin Salman’s request. 

They were concerned about the impact on France’s wide-ranging strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

But Macron ultimately decided to reject bin Salman’s request, leaving it to the Louvre to negotiate with the Saudis on how the painting should be presented in their retrospective, said the documentary. 

No deal was concluded and the museum has refused to comment on the case.

‘The Saudis are afraid of this debate on the authenticity,’ says Chris Dercon, who heads one of France’s top museum bodies and advises the Saudi government on art, in the documentary.

‘They are afraid that people will say, both at home and abroad, ‘You spent all this money for something that is not a da Vinci.”

The painting was initially bought in 2005 for just $1,175 by a New York art dealer and restored in the United States.

Several British experts authenticated the painting as a long-lost da Vinci and it was presented as such at London’s National Gallery in 2011 before being sold to a Russian oligarch for $127.5 million two years later.

It then sold for $450million at auction at Christie’s in New York, breaking the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at a public auction.

Officially, the buyer was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud – a little-known member of the Saudi royal family with no history as an art collector.

But, American officials have said, Prince Bader was actually used as a stand-in for Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the true owner of the painting.

Riyadh continues to deny that Bin Salman is the true owner.

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