Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Louvre Abu Dhabi … Money and Blood Orchestra.” “Da Vinci Code Between [Saudi Crown Prince] Ibn Salman and [Abu Dhabi Crown Prince] Ibn Zayed.” These are some of the incendiary Arabic-language headlines published by the Qatari broadcast network Al Jazeera Arabic in reaction to the complicated series of events surrounding Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which began with a sale at Christie’s New York in November 2017 for a record-breaking $450 million, and ended with a mysterious postponement of its unveiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi this past September.

Despite a convoluted sales history and debates about the work’s authenticity, quality, and value, “Salvator Mundi” was heavily marketed as the last Leonardo painting on the market prior to the celebrity-attended event (the artist is thought to have made less than twenty paintings, and the picture had gone missing for centuries before its unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery in 2011).

The seller was Russian billionaire oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought the work from Sotheby’s through Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier for $127.5 million, later accusing both Bouvier and the auction house of inflating the price for their profit and suing Sotheby’s for $380 million in damages. According to Bloomberg, last November in Monaco, local authorities charged the billionaire about accusations of corruption and abuse of influence in a larger case where he is accusing Bouvier of “the largest fraud in history” over the sale of several artworks.

Louvre Abu Dhabi (via Francisco Anzola’s Flickrstream)

At the sale, three anonymous bidders, represented by Christie’s co-chairman, head of Old Masters, and co-chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, rapidly escalated the painting’s price to a historic record. Later, it was reported that the bidders were the rival leaders of the Gulf — Qatar on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the other. Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the newly appointed Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was thought to be the owner of “Salvator Mundi.”

In December 2017, however, Christie’s issued a statement confirming the official buyer of the painting as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, whose mission is to “see humanity in a new light.” The auction house declined to comment, but shared the following press release with Hyperallergic, dated from that month:

Christie’s can confirm that the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi is acquiring ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci.

We are delighted to see that this remarkable painting will be available for public view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

At the time of the sale, Christie’s president Jussi Pylkkänen noted that the painting was destined to travel to the Louvre in Paris for the upcoming Leonardo exhibition. He told The Times that this victory was the equivalent of scoring a World Cup Final. “All the stars were aligned,” he said.

The increasingly complex saga of the “Salvator Mundi” continued to unfold, along with a series of controversies linked to the construction and mission of the $100 million Louvre Abu Dhabi, which launched with a five-year delay, reportedly violating migrant worker’s rights in the process.

While criticism of the governments’ lavish spending and tone-deaf politics soared privately and in the West, media agencies in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which channel official policies, published reports praising their governments’ cultural campaigns. The oil-rich nations have been working to promote a progressive image of their governments and have allied with France for a series of bombastic cultural programs. There was no criticism of the painting’s religious nature in the media, which instead focused on its message of peace and its rareness. (It is forbidden in some forms of Islam to portray religious icons.)

Before the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates’s arch-rival Qatar had dominated the regional cultural scene, with the $300 million Museum for Islamic Art, completed by I.M. Pei in 2008. Not to mention the prolific collecting by the royal family, which has amassed a wealth of masterpieces including Mark Rothko and Paul Cézanne, as well as Paul Gauguin’s $300 million “When Will You Marry?” — the most expensive painting ever sold before “Salvator Mundi.”

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exterior (via John Campbell’s Flickrstream)

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was Abu Dhabi’s strike back, supported by French President Emmanuel Macron, who inaugurated the museum himself. The UAE museum can carry the name “Louvre” for the next 30 years and six months in exchange for a payment to France of $525 million, and an additional amount of $750 million in the contract for employing French managers. It was conceived in collaboration with France and designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

This French-Emirati alliance and of the exportation of the French landmark was heavily controversial; but an article in Sky News Arabia, which is linked to the Emirati government, lauded the much-anticipated public unveiling of the painting. It was to be added to a series of masterpieces on loan from the Musee d’Orsay for the opening of the museum last year, part of an effort to show the global art historical mission of the institution and its cultural inclusiveness.

In June 2018, the UAE News Agency said:

“Salvator Mundi” (meaning “Savior of the World”) will be unveiled to Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre Abu Dhabi on September 18 this year [2018], the latest addition to the Abu Dhabi Cultural Collection.

The painting, which was acquired by the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi last year, is considered to be one of the less than 20 paintings known to the most important Italian Renaissance painters and the latest artwork to be acquired for the most famous artist in history.

Mohammed Khalifa Al Mubarak, head of the Department of Culture and Tourism, said that the painting “reflects the essence of Abu Dhabi’s museum narrative as well as Abu Dhabi’s mission to convey messages of tolerance and peace and acceptance of the other to the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile, leaks had emerged in the Western media from unnamed American officials and art world insiders, claiming that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had used a distant cousin as a proxy to buy the painting. In March 2018, an article in the Daily Mail alleged that the painting had been traded with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in exchange for a yacht, “the Topaz.”

These revelations, along with the Saudi prince’s recent purchase of a French castle and a series of kidnappings, fueled resentment and anger within local critics. However, opposition was swiftly suppressed as the media continued to celebrate the virtues of the purchase, building momentum for its unveiling at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and prompting visitors from around the world to plan trips to the opening.

But suddenly, on September 3, 2018, a post on Instagram announced the delay of this historic unveiling:

The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi announces the postponement of the unveiling of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. More details will be announced soon.

Then, total silence.

Despite negative reactions from the community on social media and bewilderment within the art world, there have been no answers in the media and on official local channels. A plethora of rumors and conspiracy theories are flying around, only adding to the hype and mystery surrounding a painting that could in fact be revealed to be inauthentic. Hyperallergic has contacted over twenty prominent art and media professionals, including Louvre employees, who have all declined to comment or provide further information on the enigma of the vanished “Salvator Mundi.”

“Nobody outside the immediate Arab hierarchy knows where it is,” Professor Martin Kemp, the Leonardo scholar whose research helped to “authenticate” the painting, told The Times. As for Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who has worked on the painting’s restoration since 2006, told the newspaper that she was concerned about its handling and has been asking the “custodians” at Louvre Abu Dhabi to care for the “extremely fragile” panel — but she received no response.

Mark Levine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of California Irvine, has closely followed the scandal and written about it since the sale. We spoke to him about the geopolitical dynamics at stake.

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Shirine Saad: You published an opinion piece in Al Jazeera, “The Saudi Art Charade,” one month after the historic sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s in New York. How did you come to these conclusions about the links between the Saudi-Emirati alliance and the purchase of this artwork?

Mark Levine: From the beginning, the conversation was not so much in the painting itself. There are some issues with it even though there are a few signs that da Vinci wouldn’t have done it. The issue is, here’s Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman who’s positioning himself as a reformer, a corruption fighter, a modernizer, someone who can engage with the West. Someone from a Wahhabi royal family purchases a painting, and a questionable one, of Jesus as a savior of the world — you can’t get more un-Muslim than that. On the other hand, he’s running one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and a disastrous war in Yemen. Within a year, he spends almost a billion dollars on a yacht and a painting. You don’t pay $450 million for a painting that you thought was done by a student, but this is a guy who spent more on a yacht, so he clearly has no interest in anything other than boosting his ego. Now, I suspect that the postponing of the unveiling of the painting has something to do with all those issues, and with the doubts over attribution.

SS: With the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October, Western criticism of the Saudi Prince is increasing. Has this always been the case?

ML: When these scandals were unfolding in the region, the Western media wasn’t criticizing crown prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS), and Trump even welcomed him in the US. There was a local attempt early on to shield him from responsibility for buying the painting, even though it seems impossible to show an image of Christ in Saudi Arabia. But Abu Dhabi is supposed to be liberal and modern. You have this drive to be insanely modern and progressive, but on the other hand, there is a high level of censorship and oppression. People like Trump like people like this — he’s a hotel guy, and he loves the Saudis because they spend their money at his hotels. And now, of course, they buy all the weapons. The ongoing support by the Trump administration for the Saudis and other brutal regimes shows the complete moral degeneracy of the US foreign policy.

SS: The prince has launched large-scale social and cultural initiatives to modernize the kingdom; however he is being criticized for his policies. Why?

ML: He is attempting to fight the corruption in the kingdom, but if you spend $450 million on a painting, that is contradictory. That is the obvious form of corruption — members of his own family are being arrested and detained and tortured ostensibly to help pay for the yacht and the painting. He’s shaking down the other wealthy Saudis to pay for his opulence. He’s trying to assert absolute power. Saudis, as a tribe, have always operated by consensus, whereas he shook things up and went after some of the most powerful people in the kingdom as part of a power-and-money grab. No one is safe, especially journalists and critics. Nothing is stopping MBS and I wonder how far he can go before someone says it’s too much.

SS: How does the struggle for this painting illustrate regional power dynamics?

ML: At the sale, the UAE and Saudis, who are usually allies when it comes to destroying others, were bidding each other because they thought they were fighting with Qatar. In the context of the Saudi-UAE coalition against Qatar, the painting is a way of cementing the alliance. Doha has a museum — the Islamic Art Museum — actually focused on Islam, whereas the Louvre is more open. There is no real ideological difference between those two camps, but Qatar is closer to Iran; it’s not threatened by Iran because it doesn’t have a Shia minority. Here’s the Wahhabis fighting over a clearly Christian object. The whole thing is a gift that keeps giving. This is like medieval rivalry where you have kings fighting over their opulent palaces, and everyone is trying to demonstrate their power. What is really frightening is that $450 million means nothing to them.

SS: Were the painting’s style, or subject matter, ever at the center of this story?

ML: I think it was bought as a prestige statement without even thinking. When the treasury of one of the richest oil producers in the world is your pocketbook, spending $500 million here and there is meaningless to you. And, of course, the fact that it’s a painting of Jesus, never mind the fact that he was washing the feet of the poor and wasn’t staying at Trump Tower — it just says so much about the ways in which money, power, and status are tied together in the Gulf and in the US. How symbiotic in the most sick way possible, that worship is, and how the symbol of someone who was against all that is now a pawn in this game. That’s what you do if you run a giant mafia.

SS: Emmanuel Macron has been working closely with the Saudi and Emirati regime and is planning a cultural program inspired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in Saudi Arabia. Despite criticism at home, France continues to sell arms to these governments. What are your thoughts on this?

ML: France has one of the biggest arms industries of the world, but also a position as the center of world culture and certainly art. The Louvre is how France has always sold itself as the center of Western culture. I think what you have, which is so frightening, is Macron at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, branding and franchising the Louvre and selling weapons on the same trip. You have a real quintessential example of how the neoliberal system works today, where the highest form of culture and war are tied together. You have a commodification of war and culture to a level that is unprecedented, and culture is used to wash out, or art-wash the military.

SS: In your view then, these cultural policies have little to do with art itself?

ML: If you are putting art under government control, the interesting question is to think about the kind of art governments choose to support and showcase. I don’t see how this strengthens the authority of the ruling class at home. However, it does put it in direct contact with the French cultural, political, and economic establishment, and the highest levels of French diplomacy. The French government will think twice before it sanctions the war in Yemen. The UAE and Saudis are buying enough influence to offset any potential criticism for its activities like authoritarianism and the war.

Update 1/14/19 11:10 am: An original version of this article wrote that Swiss dealer Yves Bouvier was suing both Dmitry Rybolovlev and Sotheby’s for $380 million in damages. Bouvier is suing only Sotheby’s. The original version of this article also wrote that Rybolovlev was found guilty of corruption in Monaco, however, this article has been updated to correct that Rybolovlev was only charged by Monaco authorities.

Shirine Saad is a Beirut-born journalist, programmer, and DJ focusing on culture and activism. She recently taught Arts Journalism and Criticism at Brown University, where she is the Founding Editor of...