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  • Apr 12, 2021

New Documentary Reveals More Disputes about Salvator Mundi

Salvator Mundi, c. 1500, oil on panel, 65.7 × 45.7 cm. Courtesy Christie

The portrait of Jesus attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi (c. 1499–1510), owned by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, continues to upend the art world despite being out of the public eye since its 2017 auction at Christie’s. A new documentary has uncovered details of continued disputes about whether the artist could be credited as its sole contributor. 

According to Antoine Vitkine’s documentary The Savior for Sale (2021) set to premiere on French television on April 13, the legendary painting was excluded last minute from Musée du Louvre’s long-awaited blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which opened in October 2019 to mark the 500th anniversary of the artist’s passing. In the film, an anonymous French government official confirmed that a forensic examination of the painting led by Louvre’s chief curator of paintings department Vincent Delieuvin, along with other international specialists, concluded that “Leonardo da Vinci only made a contribution to the painting.” The team expressed the findings to the Saudi government, but was, according to the documentary, pressured by the prince to display the work next to the Italian master’s Mona Lisa (1503–18), which is attributed entirely to da Vinci. Upon the Louvre’s rejection of this proposal, the Saudis refused to lend the piece to the museum for the show.

Delieuvin co-authored a book about the results of the investigation along with the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France (C2RMF), but the printed book was suppressed in December 2019, according to The Art Newspaper. The book’s preface reads, “the results of the historical and scientific study presented in this publication allow us to confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci.” While cooperation with the Saudi Ministry of Culture has not been stated, the museum is not permitted to publish texts about works that they do not own without permission. 

The whereabouts of the painting is still unknown at the moment. According to The New York Times, it was shipped to the Louvre in 2018 ahead of the 2019 exhibition. Louvre, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Saudi Ministry of Culture have not released statements concerning the documentary at time of writing.

Salvator Mundi depicts Jesus with his right hand raised while holding a crystal orb with his left. The painting was sold for a record-breaking USD 450 million at Christie’s New York in November 2017, as the most expensive painting in the world. It was previously owned by Russian business man Dmitry Rybolovlev, who acquired it from a Swiss art dealer. The painting used to be attributed to Bernardino Luini, a follower of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1958, it was sold for GBP 45 (about USD 60) at Sotheby's London, and it was not until the work was later rediscovered and restored in the United States that it was more closely examined by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and by other institutions in the following years. 

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

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