The Twisted Tale Behind a $450 Million Missing Da Vinci Masterpiece

By Barbie.Nadeau@thedailybeast.com (Barbie Latza Nadeau)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Alamy
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Alamy

ROME–When the art industry site ArtNet ran a ‘scoop’ that the $450 million Leonardo Da Vinci painting “Salvator Mundi” was hanging somewhere in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s yacht, it seemed believable enough. Ever since MBS, as he’s called, became a suspect in the gruesome murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, any alleged grotesquerie might appear credible. And it has been widely reported throughout the art world that MBS is the secret owner of the painting, which reportedly was sold to intermediary Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi Kingdom’s culture minister, at a Christie’s auction in November 2017.

Christie’s originally announced it was actually Abu Dhabi (ruled by close MBS ally Mohammed bin Zayed, known as, yes, MBZ) that had acquired the ethereal image of Jesus Christ, but those reports were later contested when it became clear that MBS was the true owner. “We are delighted to see that this remarkable painting will be available for public view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi,” Christie’s claimed in a December 2017 statement. Subsequent reports said it would be on a long-term loan to that institution, which had just opened in November that year.

But no one has seen it in public since.

The painting was supposed to be part of the Paris Louvre's commemoration this fall marking 500 years since the great Renaissance painter’s death in 1519, but the owner, it was said, refused to lend it. Other reports suggest it wasn’t included because there are longstanding doubts about whether the work is an actual Da Vinci or a product of students in his workshop in Florence in 1500 (which would knock about $448 million off its price, according to industry website ArtLyst). A third widely held view is that it is a hybrid and that the great master put on the finishing touches after his students did the initial color work.

The Louvre’s Abu Dhabi branch licenses the coveted Parisian museum’s name for $1.2 billion for 30 years. It had promised in its flamboyant inauguration that the painting would anchor its Renaissance art collection. But it never showed up.

The idea that such a valuable piece of art is bobbing on a boat in the Red Sea is the stuff of James Bond plots. But the yacht Serene is no ordinary barge. It is one of the world’s largest pleasure vessels, once owned by Russian vodka tycoon Yuri Shefler and even rented for $5 million a week by Bill Gates.

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Kenny Schachter, the author of the ArtNet scoop, quotes two “principals involved in the transaction” in his assertion that the work “was whisked away [from wherever it was] in the middle of the night on MBS’s plane and relocated to his yacht, the Serene.” He also generously quotes Wikipedia for information about the yacht, about MBS and about the masterpiece itself. He could not be reached for comment for this piece.

Ben Lewis, the author of the just published The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting, told The Daily Beast that he does not think that it is on MBS’s boat at all. He thinks it has been and remains in Switzerland. He says Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer who once owned the painting and who would know of such matters told him that the painting was in Switzerland just last December.

“The painting is very delicate,” Lewis wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “It is in five pieces carefully glued back together. One wrong move. One excessive temperature and cra-a-a-a-ack.”

“So I hate to think of the picture hanging on the wall of damp yacht,” he says.

Lewis says one of the world’s renowned art restorers, Dianne Modestini, who worked on the painting before it was auctioned by Christie’s, agrees. The Daily Beast has reached out to Modestini, who is credited with both saving and destroying the painting in her restoration work, depending who you ask.

“Dianne Modestini thought the painting was in Switzerland in Autumn 2018 because she was contacted by a Swiss restorer and asked how to pack and handle the painting for transport to France, to the [Paris] Louvre,” Lewis told The Daily Beast. “But the painting never went to the Louvre and no one told the Louvre that it might be coming.”

Modestini told Lewis that ‘Salvator Mundi’ was dispatched to Switzerland quite suddenly after the auction in 2017 and it is still there based on the queries she has received about how to keep the painting safe. “In the end she only had time to insist it was put in a MarvelSeal envelope,” Lewis says, a package which creates a temporary climate controlled environment. But that is a temporary fix and most certainly would not protect it from the depredations of air around it on even the most sophisticated yacht—something one who invested such a mighty sum might likely know.

Lewis says he believes that the painting could also stay in hiding as a way to avoid scrutiny and potential embarrassment for the crown prince if what he bought isn’t really an authentic Leonardo Da Vinci at all.

It is conceivable that the Louvre curators of the upcoming Da Vinci tribute were divided over whether to include the painting in their dedication or what to call it—an authentic painting or just a workshop studio work. “The Louvre’s official position is that ‘we have asked to borrow it from the Louvre Abu Dhabi but we haven’t had a reply from the owner,’” Lewis says, adding that such a strategy may have been a convenient way to avoid embarrassment. “My view is that we are in no-man's land.”

But Lewis wonders if the real reason MBS didn’t lend it, if that is indeed the case, and keeps its whereabouts so hidden, is because he would never wish for his $450 million masterpiece to be listed as anything but an original.

“You might think that because Abu Dhabi is paying over a billion to license the Louvre name and borrow art from the Louvre that they will be happy to show it as autograph Leonardo da Vinci,” Lewis says. “Or you might think that curatorial judgments inside the Louvre [in Paris] would mean they would insist on a Leonardo Workshop label, and then the owner would surely not want to lend it.”

The painting has a long and sordid history of being lost, found, sold and hidden, which is extraordinary for a masterpiece whose provenance is in constant doubt. “If it really is a Leonardo painting it has been incredibly unlucky,” Lewis says of the Salvator Mundi’s many problems. “And if it isn’t a Leonardo it’s been incredibly lucky.”

‘Salvator Mundi’ Sales Over the Years

  • 1958 - The painting was attributed to Da Vinci’s student Boltraffio and sold by Sotheby’s for £45 (about $1,100 today).

  • 2005 - Salvator Mundi was sold for $10,000 to New York art dealer Alexander Parish.

  • 2013 - Parish authenticates the work as an original Leonardo Da Vinci and sells it to Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for $75 million.

  • 2013 - Bouvier then sells it for $127.5 to Russian tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5

  • 2017 - Rybolovlev has the painting restored by Dianne Modestini and sells it through Christie’s for $450.3 million

Source: ArtNet

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