Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with US President Donald Trump during a state visit in March 2017 (photo by The White House/Flickr)

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with US President Donald Trump during a state visit in March 2017 (photo by The White House/Flickr)

Yesterday, the New York Times claimed to have cracked the biggest art world mystery of the year, identifying an obscure Saudi prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, as the buyer of the $450.3 million Leonardo da Vinci painting “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s last month. Today, a report by Shane Harris, Kelly Crow, Summer Said in the Wall Street Journal suggests that prince Bader merely served as a proxy, and that the real buyer of the most expensive artwork ever sold is none other than his good friend, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

The WSJ reporters cite unnamed US intelligence officials and a member of the Saudi art community, the latter of whom asserts: “It’s a fact that this deal was done via a proxy. … [Prince Bader] is a proxy for MBS.” US intelligence reports, it seems, corroborated this version of events, noting that Prince Bader has previously collaborated with MBS on various deals and transactions.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Salvator Mundi" (c.1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 in.(65.7 x 45.7 cm) (image courtesy Christie's)

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi” (ca 1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 in (image courtesy Christie’s)

The $450.3-million acquisition comes at a politically delicate moment for MBS, as he oversees a vast crackdown on government corruption that many perceive as an attempt to sideline political rivals. “The image of the crown prince spending that much money to buy a painting when he’s supposed to be leading an anticorruption drive is staggering,” an expert on Saudi Arabia and former CIA officer told the WSJ.

If true, the blockbuster “Salvator Mundi” acquisition signals MBS’s entry into the upper echelons of the art market, though he has no track record of collecting art. As the WSJ reporters point out, if MBS was indeed the buyer, his decision to loan it to the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi makes sense within the context of Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE). It also reflects a new front in the power struggle for regional influence between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter of which was for years the top art market power in Western Asia. Indeed, the sister of Qatar’s ruling Emir, Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, was responsible for what was until last month the most expensive art sale ever, the private acquisition of Paul Gauguin’s “When Will You Marry?” for $300 million in 2015.

The WSJ report even includes the juicy tidbit that Sotheby’s offered the Qatari royal the opportunity to buy “Salvator Mundi” in 2011 for roughly $80 million, but the family declined, according to a former adviser. Instead it was bought by the Russian billionaire Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, who was the seller at last month’s blockbuster Christie’s auction.

Update, 12/8/2017: The Louvre Abu Dhabi announced today that “Salvator Mundi” was acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for the museum’s collection.

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...