Salvator Mundi absent from major Leonardo show but Louvre still hope world's most expensive painting will turn up

Henry Samuel
Salvator Mundi was sold for $450m - AFP

Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, has failed to show up to a major Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre, despite a request by the Paris museum to borrow the controversial work.

The painting,  which made headlines all over the world when it sold for $450m (£354m) at Christie’s in New York in 2017, was not at a press viewing of the exhibition on Friday marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death.

However,  after months of speculation over its provenance and whereabouts, the curator expressed hope that it may yet arrive; the show opens to the public on October 24. 

Salvator Mundi's buyer has been identified as the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who reportedly agreed that it would become a star of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. However, the display in Abu Dhabi was unexpectedly halted last year amid debate over its authenticity.

Some of the world’s leading Leonardo experts, including Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford, insist it is genuinely the lost work of the master. Others have expressed reservations or have been downright dismissive.

Speaking to The Telegraph this week, the Louvre exhibition’s co-curator Vincent Delieuvin, confirmed that the museum had asked to borrow the work for the show and still held out hope it would turn up in the nick of time.

“We would like to have the painting,” he said, adding that visitors would have to come to the show “to see if you see it or not”.

Debate has raged over whether the painting is wholly Leonardo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images North America

The painting was purchased by two American art dealers in 2005 from a New Orleans estate sale for $1,175 (£913).

After years of restoration experts became convinced it was genuinely a lost Leonardo and it was included in the National Gallery’s blockbuster show in London in 2011.

But since its sale, mystery shrouds its whereabouts, amid speculation it is in high-security storage in a freeport in Switzerland or even on the Saudi crown prince's superyacht.

When asked, Mr Delieuvin said he was unsure but thought it was “in the owner’s house”.

The Louvre curator refused to be drawn on the debate over whether it was a wholly authentic work by Leonardo, saying he could only do so if it was indeed part of the exhibition.

In that case, he added: “You will discover in the label what we think of the painting.”

Beyond question marks over the Salvator Mundi, the Louvre scored one victory this week when an Italian court rejected a last-minute bid to halt the loan of Leonardo’s iconic Vitruvian Man drawing and other works, ending a bitter cultural row.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" will be at the Louvre exhibition Credit:  GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP

The court last week suspended the loan of the celebrated artwork after the group Italia Nostra (Our Italy) filed a complaint saying the drawing was too fragile to travel.

The drawing is insured for at least one billion euros, Italian media have said.

The court in Venice cited "the exceptional global relevance of the (Louvre) exhibition and (Italy's) desire to maximise its heritage potential" in overturning the bid to stop the loan of several Da Vinci works.

The Vitruvian Man depicts the proportions of the human body according to Roman architect Vitruvius.

The work was not at the press viewing either but curators insisted it would be in time for the show - expected to draw record numbers to the world's most visited museum.