In 2017, the art world went crazy as drama unfolded around the sale of “Salvator Mundi,” a painting of Jesus Christ that was controversially attributed to painting master Leonardo da Vinci. Intrigue surrounding the work ran high between its record-setting selling price of more than $450 million, an anonymous bidder thought to represent Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and experts from around the world debating the authenticity of the painting, which looked distinctly different than most typical Leonardo works.
Today the controversy continues as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which recently announced they would be displaying the painting, canceled the scheduled unveiling without explanation, as reported by The New York Times. The culture department has refused to answer any questions pertaining to the work, and museum staffers say that they do not know where the painting is.
Neither, it seems, does anyone else.
French officials who work with the Louvre in Paris, which licenses its name to the Abu Dhabi museum, expected to include the painting in a major exhibition later this year. The event will mark the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. They expressed hope that the painting would resurface prior to then.
“It is tragic,” said Dianne Modestini, an art professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. In the past, she has also worked as a conservator on this particular painting. “To deprive the art lovers and many others who were moved by this picture — a masterpiece of such rarity — is deeply unfair,” she added.
In November 2017, it became the most expensive work ever sold at auction, fetching $450.3 million (U.S.). Now, the painting is shrouded in a new mystery: Where in the world is Salvator Mundi? https://t.co/IDFMVpUxiY
— TorontoStar (@TorontoStar) March 31, 2019
It remains unclear how the Abu Dhabi museum came to an agreement on displaying the artwork in the first place. Traditionally, such an arrangement could take the form of a gift, loan, or private sale. Some now speculate that it was indeed Crown Prince Mohammed who purchased the painting and that he may have simply changed his mind and decided to keep it for himself.
No comment was made from the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Adding another layer to the saga, Prince Mohammed has faced intense scrutiny lately for unhinged behavior. United States intelligence agencies report that they’ve determined the prince ordered the now notorious killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered by Saudi agents while visiting a consulate in Istanbul.
The last known location of the painting may have been a stop in Zurich, Switzerland, where it was examined by an insurance company before being shipped to an unknown location.
After that, “the trail goes completely cold” according to Modestini.