As the Louvre prepares to mark five centuries since the passing of Leonardo da Vinci with a major exhibition of the Renaissance master’s work, inclusion of the world’s most notorious painting – the Salvator Mundi – is in doubt.

The painting of Jesus Christ, which sold in 2017 for an unprecedented sum of $450 million dollars, had been billed by the storied auction house Christie’s as “the last Leonardo.” This description built on credence gained six years earlier when the National Gallery of London unveiled the work to the public as a genuine Da Vinci, ostensibly putting it among the ranks of an exclusive club of some 20 paintings accepted to have been done by the artist’s own hand.

The prospect of owning this rare depiction of the Christ, a figure also revered in Islam as a messenger preceding Prophet Mohammed, was enough to drive up bidding to ungodly sums in a matter of minutes.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have been behind the gargantuan acquisition, although the Saudi embassy in Washington insisted the buyer was an obscure member of the royal family acting on behalf of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

But what promised to be the jewel in the crown of the interfaith-obsessed Emirati museum never arrived for its promised October 2018 unveiling.

Instead, the painting has yet to see the light of day, or at least the glare of the public eye. And that, art experts say, is for a very good reason.

Visitors stand with their mobile phones and smartphones in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre in April 2019. Photo: Sabine Glaubitz/dpa

Louvre expo looms

The biggest issue at stake, as the Louvre expo looms, is how the Salvator Mundi would be labeled in a charged environment of colliding geopolitics, business interests and reputations at stake.

Carmen Bambach of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one of the foremost scholars of Italian Renaissance art and Da Vinci, believes the master at most carried out minor retouches on the painting, which as a whole she says would have been the work of one of his assistants.

Bambach was listed by Christie’s as one of just over a dozen art historians who had been consulted in order to establish “broad consensus that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci.” The Met curator told the Guardian that this was not an accurate representation of her conclusions.

Other key Da Vinci experts, notably Oxford University’s Martin Kemp, have thrown their academic weight behind the painting.

But art history professor David Nolta of the Massachusetts College of Art says the “reputational damage” to the piece has already been done. 

“The money is the problem. It’s the reason everyone wants to see it,” he says. “There’s a complete disconnect between value and authenticity.

“I don’t think you can show that picture other than as being the most expensive painting in the world. People like myself have serious questions about whether this is a real Leonardo,” Nolta told Asia Times.

According to art critic Ben Lewis – whose book The Last Leonardo: The Secret Lives of the World’s Most Expensive Painting seeks to trace Salvator Mundi’s journey – a number of Louvre curators have similar questions.

“Sources inside the Louvre attested to me that many Louvre curators don’t think Salvator Mundi is an autographed Leonardo,” he told Asia Times. 

With that in mind, Lewis says there is the possibility the French may insist that the work is exhibited as the product of the Da Vinci “workshop,” denoting that it was painted largely by the master’s followers. 

No one knows whether the Louvre Paris is going to show Salvator Mundi,” Lewis says. “if they do that, it will anoint the picture. If not, I think the picture is condemned.”

To show the painting as “Da Vinci workshop” would put its market value close to the lower millions, and $20 million if you are being generous, according to Lewis. “There’s no comparison” between the categories, he says. 

The stakes and sensitivities are raised due to the relationship between the Louvre in Paris and the announced owner, the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre could never risk its reputation by agreeing to modify its art history opinion based on money,” Nolta of MassArt said. If the painting is exhibited as a true Da Vinci, “that’s what it would look like because of its huge price. They could just show it” – without attribution — “but I imagine the buyer is not going to allow anything that makes it look in question.”

The era of big-name museums like the Louvre and Guggenheim selling their brands abroad may be headed for a reckoning, he suggests. “This may be a wake-up call — if you’re going to spread your influence that far, you’re going to get into situations where politics play a bigger role than museum studies or art history.”

In this case, the connections between the Louvre and its new sister the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and between the crown princes in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, have put the fate of the painting and the reputations of multiple museums and governments at stake.

Amid the fiasco, one would imagine that the previous owner who’d bought the painting for a mere $127.5 million four years prior to reselling it at the record auction would be pleased. But one would be wrong.

Christie’s employees take bids for the Leonardo da Vinci attributed work “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s New York on November 15, 2017. Photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP

Blue chip blues

Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev was on a quest to build up the perfect art collection for his home in exile when he met Yves Bouvier.

Dubbed the “Freeport King,” the Swiss art dealer and shipper had prized inside knowledge of the possessions and liquidations of the world’s stealth wealth, kept in storage in facilities out of the public eye. In theory, he was the ideal link for a private collector in the top 1% looking to accumulate blue chip art.

When old money needed cash, and decided to sell a high-value piece, Bouvier began to inform Rybolovlev. The two developed trust, with Bouvier convincing Rybolovlev that in order to keep the prices fair, the Russian oligarch should keep his identity out of the process and go through Bouvier’s Hong Kong-based company. Over the span of a decade, Bouvier facilitated the purchase of millions of dollars worth of art – with a humble stated commission averaging 2%, according to Southern District of New York court filings obtained by Asia Times.

The Salvator Mundi, which Rybolovlev purchased in 2013, was to be the “pearl of the collection,” with the perfect combination of personality, intrigue and investment value, according to a source close to the Rybolovlev camp who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity. The main salon of Rybolovlev’s home was prepared to feature the rare work, which had captivated him during a private viewing.

Then, by chance, Rybolovlev met the prior owner of one of his paintings at a New Year’s Eve party. The man revealed the price he had sold the piece for – millions less than the price for which Rybolovlev had bought it. It would be the end of his collaboration with Bouvier, and the prod for him to get rid of the now-tainted Da Vinci as fast as he had bought it.

A lawsuit brought by two companies owned by Rybolovlev alleges Bouvier included kick-backs as high as 145% in the prices of 38 separate masterworks – representing fraud of more than $1 billion. The scale of the claim helps explain why even the windfall profit Rybolovlev gained from his 2017  sale of the Salvator Mundi did nothing to dull his fury with Bouvier.

The suit further claims that auction house Sotheby’s was in on the fraud, and that its vice chairman for private sales had emailed descriptions of paintings to Bouvier that were intended to be passed on to Rybolovlev. Bouvier in turn would allegedly misrepresent these emails to his client as insider information on high-value works.

Sotheby’s in an October 2018 interview with Reuters called the suit a “desperate” one, adding that it would “vigorously defend the company and our employees against these baseless claims.”

The murky situation is characteristic of a sector that has “no transparency, almost no regulation and a culture of almost obsessional secrecy,” as Jan Dalley of the Financial Times characterized  it following the sale of the Salvator Mundi.

“We don’t usually know the names of either buyer or seller in auction transactions, and in private sales not even the price — or indeed whether a sale has taken place at all. There is no register of transactions, or of ownership of works. The term ‘insider trading’ does not apply — in fact you could say that all art trading depends on insider knowledge of some sort,” Dalley wrote at the time.

While Rybolovlev wages his crusade in the United States, the heir to a certain Gulf throne may be weighing whether to take matters up with Christie’s over its characterization of the Salvator Mundi.

“This would not be the first time a major auction house has the buyer sue over misrepresentation,” said Nolta. “Lawsuits take place even over jewelry.” For the owner of the Salvator Mundi, however, it’s possible there will be enough scholars attesting to the painting’s authenticity that “he chooses not to sue.”

Typically, according to the art professor, a buyer and auction house will come to an arrangement outside the public eye.

In July 2018, for example, Emirati collector Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi settled a lawsuit with Sotheby’s over a bronze sculpture the auction house catalogue had attributed to Egyptian modernist Mahmoud Mokhtar, although a foundry report provided at the time of sale said it was cast a year after the artist’s death – significantly reducing its worth and meaning. In the end, Al Qassemi said the suit was “amicably settled by the two parties on confidential terms.”

“Auction houses are pretty clear about absolving themselves of responsibility in their documentation,” Nolta points out. “The famous phrase is caveat emptor: the buyer has to beware.” He doubts that a leading auction house would lose such a lawsuit.

With the amount of cash changing hands, even a significant price reduction for a prized client could mean the auction house comes out on top.

Sued by monks

The saga of the Salvator Mundi seems only fitting when one considers Da Vinci’s own troubles to keep up with demand during his lifetime. According to Nolta, the master painter frequently ran into problems with patrons over over works that he never finished, or that he was accused of delegating to assistants.

Take the Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned for a church in Milan.

“The monks said he didn’t paint as much of the picture as he said he would. One of them said he was clearly working with an established Milanese painting firm,” chuckled Nolta. 

At various stages, Leonardo suffered the plight of a freelancer: “Leonardo was constantly having to beg for money, go to the authorities. He wouldn’t get paid, wouldn’t get paid, go to the patron. Try to get his money back.”

Da Vinci found security in his later years at a chateau granted to him by French King Francis I in Amboise in the Loire Valley, passing away there in 1519. France was the final home for the bulk of his paintings and drawings, which in a matter of months will go on display in the Louvre as a grand exhibition.

Ahead of the October 2019 – February 2020 exposition, it is confirmed that the Louvre has officially requested a loan of the Salvator Mundi from its partner in Abu Dhabi.

What is not known is whether the work can be exhibited in a manner acceptable to the owner, and whether all parties involved, from Paris to Abu Dhabi, can find redemption in its showing.