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New documentary on ‘Salvator Mundi’ alleges political discord over world’s most expensive work of art

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Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, 1490

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Live News

Since its record sale at Christie’s New York in 2017 for an exorbitant amount of 450 million dollars, Salvator Mundi (Latin for ‘Savior of the World’) has been the subject of a worldwide debate – with scholars doubting that it can be entirely attributed to the Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519). The French documentary The Savior for Sale: The Story of Salvator Mundi, who recently made her UK debut at Sheffield DocFest, makes shocking claims about the geopolitical unrest the painting has allegedly caused between France and Saudi Arabia.

Film director Antoine Vitkine, known for his critically acclaimed documentary on Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, rushed headlong into the dark saga of the world’s most expensive work of art when searching for his project ; a detailed profile of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). During his investigation of the crown prince, Vitkine’s curiosity came to a head when he learned that MBS had sent Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah to buy Salvator Mundi in the name of the future monarch. Why would a devout Muslim hopefully acquire a portrait of Jesus Christ of dubious origin? And why hadn’t it been on display to the public since the historic sale?

O Salvator Mundi, where are you ?

“If you bought the most famous painting in the whole world, by the most famous artist who ever lived, at the highest price ever paid, why are you hiding it? The pointed question, asked by famous art critic Jerry Saltz in an interview with Al Jazeera, lays the premises for Vitkine’s investigations. However, while keeping Salvator Mundibehind closed doors might seem suspicious to skeptics like Saltz, it wouldn’t be the first time that a wealthy collector has locked an artistic marvel from prying eyes. For example, billionaire shipping tycoon Philip Niarchos reportedly acquired Vincent van Gogh’s strike Portrait of the beardless artist of Christie’s in 1998 – for a whopping $ 71.5 million – and he Again has yet to appear publicly.

According to the sources of Vitkine on camera, MBS would have sought to exploit the cultural weight of the most prolific artistic institution in history, the Louvre museum in Paris, to co-sign the authenticity of its prize. Rather than start Salvator Mundi at Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, as announced by the museum, MBS chose to create a sensation in 2019 – during the successful Leonardo da Vinci retrospective at the Louvre museum, held in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Tuscan polymath. As followers of this twisted tale know, when the exhibition opened, “the last Da Vinci” was nowhere to be found.

A chatterbox with an alias and an alleged secret inspection

True to form, Vitkine’s film features a colorful cast of characters, including a cameo by crafty Chris Dercon; who straddles an unusual lineage as President of the Association of National Museums of France-Grand Palais and a Board Member of the Visual Arts and Museums Commissions of the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With the eminent Da Vinci scholar and professor emeritus of art history at the University of Oxford, Martin Kemp, Vitkine presents us with a “deepthroat esque” source using the pseudonym of Jacques.


French President Emmanuel Macron receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, 2018

Courtesy of Albaca Press and Alamy

The masked face, Jacques, who presents himself as an anonymous official in the government of French President Emmanuel Macron, alleges details of a top secret examination of the enigmatic painting undertaken by the C2RMF (Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France). ‘Vincent Delieuvin [the Louvre’s lead expert on Da Vinci and heritage curator] brought together all kinds of international specialists, ”he says nervously. “At the end of the process, the verdict was revealed: the scientific proof was that Leonardo da Vinci only made one contribution to paint. There was no doubt – and therefore, we informed the Saudis.

Jacques says that after hearing the less than favorable conclusions of the Louvre on the soft power asset of their leader, Saudi officials have taken a hard stance. He alleges that “MBS laid down very clear conditions: to show Salvator Mundi beside the Mona Lisa without any further explanation and present it as 100% Leonardo da Vinci. According to Jacques, the acquiescence could have been interpreted as the sign of the Louvre at the art market that Salvator Mundi ostensibly was “the male Mona Lisa‘- just as it had been dubbed in the press. With curiosity, The arts journal reports that the Louvre declined to comment on Viktine’s film, despite the narrative’s emerging institution as a moral pillar in an otherwise murky art world.

Political conjecture and presidential verdict

According to the film, a political showdown began within the French government once MBS sent in his demands. Jacques accuses Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, of siding with the Saudis in order to safeguard economic relations between France and Saudi Arabia. Keep in mind that if the film’s timeline is correct, the controversy arises in the wake of the two countries signing the Al-Ula Accord – a mammoth development deal between France and Saudi Arabia. in which France would bring in around twenty billion euros. It could be argued that Le Drian aimed to protect France’s long-term interests in the region, as is his duty. Whatever his real motivations, Le Drian did not address the innuendoes of the film.

If Jacques is frank, on the other hand were those who, like him, were deeply concerned about the international credibility of the Louvre if the museum bowed to the wishes of MBS. “My position, which I communicated at the highest level, was that the Saudi conditions were unreasonable,” said Jacques, reflecting on the alleged scheming underlying the ordeal. Adding that he believed, ‘Expose [Salvator Mundi] on their terms, would have laundered a work at 450 million dollars. Hammer, meet the nail.

After enduring what must have been extraordinary political pressure from Riyadh and Paris, Jacques claims that President Macron officially sided with the Louvre and his team in September 2019. “President Macron took over. the decision not to follow the terms of MBS … our credibility, the credibility of France and the Louvre. Arguing that the Louvre, “would no longer be loaned works if we did that sort of thing.” Baroque assertion certainly. While the chatting president refrained from commenting Salvator Mundior the anguish it would have caused at the Elysee Palace, the Da Vinci retrospective took place under “the high patronage of French President Emmanuel Macron”.


Leonardo DeVinci at the Louvre in Paris, 2019

Courtesy of Alain Jocard / AFP

“The book that never existed” and the tip of the iceberg

So where does that leave us? While Vitkine may have finally solved the mystery of why Salvator Mundi never made an appearance at the Louvre’s Da Vinci retrospective – with allegations of political machinations behind the scenes – he’s unable to tell us where Christ’s face is now. The Wall Street Journal report earlier this year, which alleges the masterpiece was spotted inside the Crown Prince’s 439-foot superyacht Serene, is our first and only clue to the last supposed location of the array.

Adding to the general intrigue, a few days later The Savior for Sale: The Story of Salvator Mundi Aired at dizzying ratings on France 5, the film has apparently disappeared from most corners of the Internet. At the same time, a secret exhibition booklet entitled Leonardo da Vinci: The Salvator Mundi, prepared by the Louvre and printed in December 2019, was distributed anonymously to various media outlets. As reported by The Art Tribune, significant portions of its 46 pages directly contradict Jacques’ claims in Vitkine’s film.

The preface, written by Jean-Luc Martinez, then director of the museum, clearly states that “the results of the historical and scientific study presented in this book allow us to confirm the attribution of the work. [Salvator Mundi] to Leonardo da Vinci, an attractive hypothesis proposed in the early 2010s and which has sometimes been contested. The Louvre has refused to comment on the existence of said booklet. Notably, Vitkine pleads ignorance of “the book that never existed” and, as a result, vital information is lacking in his daring documentary.

To date, MBS has not commented directly on its announced acquisition of Salvator Mundi, its current location, or the alleged debacle with the Louvre museum. Theories abound on who wanted the mysterious booklet brought to the attention of the press and the true identity of the furtive Jacques. However, without his real name on the record and a conclusive statement from the Louvre, we are only faced with speculation – in the absence of definitive evidence tipping the scales one way or the other. When it comes to “The Last Da Vinci”, I’d bet we’ve only caught a glimpse of the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Whatever the truth, more is yet to come.

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