The recently rediscovered painting made headlines in 2017 when it fetched $450m at auction. Then it vanished again

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

EVEN BY THE standards of blockbuster shows, “Leonardo da Vinci” promised to be one to remember. The exhibition, which ran for four months from October 2019, marked the 500th anniversary of the master’s death and was hosted at the Louvre, a museum which owns more of the painter’s work than any other institution. Two years earlier a recently rediscovered artwork of Jesus Christ by da Vinci had fetched $450m at auction, a record sum. Dubbed the “male Mona Lisa”, “Salvator Mundi” would be displayed beside its female counterpart for the first time at the Louvre. That’s what the buyer hoped, at least: when the show opened, there was no sign of the picture even though it was included in the exhibition catalogue (which had been printed some time beforehand).

The painting came from nowhere and has now effectively disappeared again. Antoine Vitkine, a French journalist and film-maker, explains why in “The Saviour for Sale”, a controversial new documentary. To make sense of a complex story, Mr Vitkine opts for a chronological narrative, but each segment is centred on a particular individual: “The Dealer”, “The Mercenary” and so on. He begins with Robert Simon, a New York art dealer who in 2005 paid $1,175 at an attic sale in New Orleans for a dirty painting he hadn’t even seen. After a painstaking restoration, some began whispering that it might be by the master himself.

An ambitious British curator named Luke Syson was determined to make this new discovery the centrepiece of a da Vinci exhibition being planned for 2011 at the National Gallery in London. After the show closed, Mr Simon put the picture up for sale. One man who heard about it was Dmitry Rybolovlev, a deeply religious Russian who had made his fortune from potassium fertilisers. Working for “The Oligarch”, as Mr Rybolovlev is called in the film, was “The Right-Hand Man”, a Swiss art dealer and businessman named Yves Bouvier. Mr Bouvier told Mr Rybolovlev he had negotiated the price of the artwork down to just $127.5m. The picture was his. (It is alleged that Mr Bouvier paid around $80m for it; Mr Rybolovlev has sued and the case involves courts in several countries.)

The documentary says that, cross and feeling duped, Mr Rybolovlev fell out of love with the painting and decided to sell it on again. Enter Christie’s, which took the picture on a whirlwind international tour. The auction house offered it for sale in its grandest contemporary-art auction in New York, which, as one commentator in the film tells Mr Vitkine, attracts “new buyers who don’t know about attribution and restoration, who don’t buy Old Masters, but who would go for a [big] name”. The possibility that da Vinci might only have contributed to the work or that it was painted by his workshop was not mentioned. Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s worldwide president and the auctioneer, said that the painting had previously been “in the collections of three kings of England”.

“The Saviour for Sale” captures the heady excitement of that auction, as the “Salvator Mundi” sold for almost five times its pre-sale estimate. Within days, American intelligence sources told the Wall Street Journal that Prince Badr bin Abdullah had purchased the painting, acting as an intermediary for Muhammad bin Salman, his cousin and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Many cultural commentators assumed that the work was intended as a draw for Louvre Abu Dhabi, a lavish new museum which was opening that month. As part of a lengthy contract, the Louvre receives money from the Abu Dhabi outpost in exchange for lending artworks and advising them on their own acquisitions.

In the final ten minutes of Mr Vitkine’s film, a senior French government source, filmed in a theatrical white mask to hide his identity, explains what happened next and why “Salvator Mundi” was a no-show at the exhibition. The Louvre is one of the few museums in the world with access to a particle accelerator, a machine that allows for careful and in-depth analysis of artworks. The source claims that what specialists saw when they examined the picture was that, though it could still claim to be a painting by da Vinci, several other studio artists also contributed to the work. Vincent Delieuvin, a curator, offered a different view in a presentation booklet intended to accompany the exhibition. The Louvre’s scientific enquiries supported the idea that the “Salvator Mundi” was an “autograph work” (ie, by da Vinci’s hand) but that it had been “sadly damaged by the poor conservation of the work and by previous restorations which were too brutal”.

There may be a more prosaic reason for the painting’s absence. According to the French government insider, Saudi Arabia wanted “Salvator Mundi” to be hung beside the “Mona Lisa” in order to showcase the majesty of their new purchase. When the Louvre refused—because the “Mona Lisa” has its own room and security and was not going to be moved for the da Vinci show—the loan was denied. The Art Newspaper says the Louvre withdrew the booklet as the museum is not allowed to write about artworks it has not exhibited.

Mr Vitkine has persuaded an impressive number of people to talk to him on camera and what they have to say is riveting: “The Saviour for Sale” sometimes feels like a thriller rather than a documentary. But the story is not over yet. It is not clear what has become of the picture or what its future might be. As for what the Louvre’s decision means for Saudi-French relations—for the rapport between Emmanuel Macron and the Saudi prince, for France’s arms sales to the Gulf, for French diplomacy in the region and for the future of the great culture projects France hoped to build in Saudi Arabia—all of that would be a subject for another film.

“The Saviour For Sale” will be broadcast on France 5 on April 13th