The question of ownership of “Salvator Mundi,” the painting reputedly by Leonardo da Vinci, appears to be as complicated as its provenance and authorship, as the Louvre Abu Dhabi is now claiming the painting was acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for the museum itself.
The news comes after initial reports from the New York Times that the painting was purchased by Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, which was followed by supposed news from the Wall Street Journal that the real buyer was the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The news syncs up with rumors in the commercial art world before the auction that Louvre Abu Dhabi was looking to purchase the painting, but why the reports of its buyer were misreported by major news outlets is certainly odd. Perhaps it was donated to the museum by a Saudi buyer? Like so much about this painting, it’s hard to tell the truth from fiction and marketing.
Promoted as an encyclopedic museum, Louvre Abu Dhabi opened to much fanfare last month, and now it appears to have secured a work that is sure to attract tourists from all over the world.
UPDATE 1, 12/8/2017, 2:25pm EST: A new report from Reuters has confirmed that the United Arab Emirates owns the painting, and they offered this information regarding the role of the Saudi princes:
A document seen by Reuters showed that a Saudi prince was authorized to purchase the painting on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.
The document, dated Nov. 12, is addressed to Prince Badr bin Abdullah al Saud and thanks him for “agreeing to bid as undisclosed agent for and on behalf of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for the artwork” at Christie’s auction on Nov. 15.
The letter authorizes the Prince to “bid up to a hammer price” of $500 million.
A UAE government official confirmed the painting belonged to the Abu Dhabi government and would be put on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
“Contrary to media reports, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not purchase this art piece,” a Saudi official told Reuters.
“But, yes, His Royal Highness and His Highness Prince Badr Al Saud are good friends,” the official said.
The official added that the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism had subsequently asked Prince Badr to act “as an intermediary purchaser”.
UPDATE 2, 12/8/2017, 15:29 EST: The Saudi embassy in Washington, DC has released a statement about its role in the acquisition (probably because of the extensive media queries). Here it is: