Sold for $450m to Saudi prince, ‘Salvator Mundi’ deemed not painted by Leonardo

Downgrade by curators at Museo Nacional del Prado comes after years of questions over attribution of Jesus painting, the most expensive ever sold at auction

In this October 24, 2017, photo, an employee poses with Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" on display at Christie's auction rooms in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
In this October 24, 2017, photo, an employee poses with Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" on display at Christie's auction rooms in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The “Salvator Mundi,” said to be painted by Leonardo da Vinci and sold for a record-setting $450 million to a buyer reportedly on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has recently been downgraded by curators at the Prado.

The Spanish museum’s decision to downgrade the attribution of the work “represents the most critical response from a leading museum since the Christie’s sale,” The Art Newspaper reported Thursday.

Since its sale at Christie’s in 2017, the painting, in which Jesus Christ is depicted emerging from darkness blessing the world with one hand while holding a transparent globe in the other, has not been exhibited in public, intensifying a mystery about its ownership and whereabouts, and deepening the debate about its authenticity.

Many art experts are split over whether the painting is genuine, with some saying it was not painted by the Italian master personally but instead by his workshop.

The Prado has an index for a da Vinci exhibition in which paintings are listed as either “by Leonardo” or “attributed works, workshop or authorized and supervised by Leonardo.” The “Salvator Mundi” is now listed in the latter category, according to the report.

Curator Ana Gonzáles Mozo said in an essay for the exhibition catalog that “some specialists consider that there was a now lost prototype [of the Salvator Mundi] while others think that the much debated Cook version is the original.” The Cook version is the Saudi-owned painting, so named after it was bought by Francis Cook in 1900.

Bidding representatives react after Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold for $450 million at Christie’s, Nov. 15, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

But the expert said that it could be that “there is no painted prototype” by da Vinci and noted that perhaps another copy of “Salvator Mundi” could be the closest to the lost original.

The Prado catalog also contains an opening essay by Vincent Delieuvin, curator of Paris’s Musée du Louvre’s 2019 retrospective of works by the artist. He discusses the Saudi-owned painting, referring to “details of surprisingly poor quality.”

Delieuvin concluded, “It is to be hoped that a future permanent display of the work will allow it to be reanalyzed with greater objectivity.”

The whereabouts of the painting are currently unknown.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the painting by the Renaissance artist was bought in 2017 by Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah, who was acting the name of bin Salman. Riyadh has never confirmed or denied that report.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on October 23, 2018. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who owned the painting before putting it up for sale in 2017, has alleged Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier charged him inflated prices on dozens of works he acquired for more than $2.1 billion.

Rybolovlev had commissioned Bouvier to help build up an art collection to rival a small museum — including works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Rodin, Matisse and da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.” Swiss prosecutors closed the case in September but Rybolovlev has said he will appeal.

AFP contributed to this report.

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