Stranger than fiction

Saudi crown prince ‘lobbied France to authenticate fake da Vinci’

Upcoming documentary claims Louvre was urged to lie about world’s most expensive painting

Mohammed Bin Salman pressured bosses at the Louvre to lie about the authenticity of a supposed Leonardo da Vinci painting in order to save his own face, a new documentary alleges.

Some experts had pointed out that The Salvator Mundi (The Savior of the World) did not resemble any other works by the Italian master before the rediscovered “lost” work went under the hammer in 2017. But those doubts didn’t prevent the painting from selling for a world-record $450m at the Christie’s auction in New York.

And according to newly unearthed confidential files seen by The New York Times (NYT), the winning bidder was the Saudi Culture Ministry.

Missing work

The painting was originally discovered at a yard sale in New Orleans and attracted “vast public interest” after being identified as a da Vinci, says Forbes. Around 1,000 art collectors, dealers and onlookers packed into the Christie’s sale, and “120,000 art fans watched the auction via a Facebook live stream”, to see “art world history” being made, the news site continues.

But while the “extravagant” winning bid “reflected the extreme rarity of authenticated works” by the artist, upcoming documentary The Savior for Sale reveals the “murky controversy” surrounding the painting.

Evidence suggesting that the Salvator Mundi was a fake first surfaced in mid-2019, when it was due to appear in an exhibition at the Louvre to commemorate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death. The valuable artwork was shipped to the world-famous art museum in Paris, where “the painting went under a number of machines” and “was X-rayed all over”, an anonymous official known as “Jacques” told French documentary-maker Antoine Vitkine. 

“At the end of the process the verdict was revealed: the scientific evidence was that Leonardo da Vinci only made a contribution to the painting,” the official said. “There was no doubt. And so, we informed the Saudis.”

The discovery “was consistent with a long-held view among some experts” that the painting was “not one of the few certified full Leonardos”, reports The Times. Instead, “experts consider that the work was more likely to have been the work of Leonardo’s studio”, with assistants working on the painting together while their boss “instructed and added touches”.

Amid growing doubts, French curators prepared to open the highly anticipated Louvre exhibition, on which they “had worked for a decade”, says the NYT. But when the big day finally arrived, “the most talked-about painting” was “nowhere to be seen”. 

Questions were immediately asked about whether the world-renowned gallery had “concluded that the painting was not actually the work of da Vinci”, the paper adds. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, a diplomatic crisis had broken out. 

Art lobby

“Word from the Paris Louvre to the Saudis” that the painting was not an original immediately triggered what The Times describes as a “wrangle”.

According to the new documentary, bin Salman - also known as MBS - demanded that the Salvator Mundi be displayed as an authentic da Vinci.

“The whole thing changed in a way that was incomprehensible,” the source known as Jacques told filmmaker Vitkine. “MBS laid down very clear conditions - show the Salvator Mundi beside the Mona Lisa without any other explanation, present it as 100% Leonardo da Vinci. There were all sorts of negotiations, Saudi Arabia promised a fund or something.”

As the Saudis pushed for the painting to be displayed, France’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Culture Minister Franck Riester “weighed in, lobbying on behalf of the Saudi request”, The Art Newspaper reports. 

Prince Badr bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi minister of culture, was taken on a “private tour” of the Louvre by Riester to try to “persuade him to lend the painting”, the NYT adds.

However, Jacques claims that Emmanuel Macron chose to “not to follow MBS’s conditions”.

“Our credibility was at stake, the credibility of France, of the Louvre, over a long period,” the insider said. “In the long term, we would no longer be lent works if we did this sort of thing.”

The French president’s decision “caused a minor diplomatic riff between France and Saudi Arabia”, Forbes reports.

The NYT notes that the Saudis have since “kept the painting out of sight as the cloud of intrigue around it continues to swell”.

In 2019, art industry news site Artnet reported that the painting was being kept on bin Salman’s 440ft superyacht, Serene.

And while “the painting had been due to be displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi”, says The Times, the public display never materialised.

‘Unwarranted speculation’?

The painting has previously been displayed in London’s National Gallery, where is was displayed as a newly discovered work by da Vinci after being bought by two New York art dealers in 2005.

British art historian Martin Kemp was among the experts who attributed the painting to the Italian master ahead of the 2017 auction. Kemp told the new documentary - screening on state channel France 5 next week - that he “would not have stuck my neck out if I had not been reasonably sure, but one can always be mistaken”.

“What was published in the Christie’s catalogue was overly definite, absolutely,” he admitted, adding that “if I’m wrong, nobody died - somebody lost a lot of money”.

Robert Simon, a New York art dealer involved in the rediscovery of the work, told the NYT that the speculation around the artwork has damaged the work’s credibility regardless of whether it is the real thing or not. “It is soiled in a way because of all this unwarranted speculation,” Simon argued.

And as the controversy continues to make waves in the art world, the controversial painting looks set to remain hanging in bin Salman’s yacht for a while longer.

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