Opinion

Has the Salvator Mundi Really Gone Missing? Unpacking the Latest Conspiracy Theory

Keeping track of the world’s most expensive painting has become more difficult since it transferred into Saudi hands. One conspiracist claims the painting is involved in a money laundering plot tie Trump-Russia scandal.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Salvator Mundi” (c.1500), oil on panel, 25 7/8 x 18 inches (65.7 x 45.7 cm) (image courtesy Christie’s)

Has Salvator Mundi really gone missing as part of an elaborate money laundering scheme by the Saudi government to line the pockets of an exiled Russian oligarch? Could it be the missing link in a play to fund a social media deception campaign for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, eerily similar to the unearthed Cambridge Analytica scandal?

Highly unlikely, but that’s the line of inquiry currently gripping art world misanthropes everywhere thanks to a conspiratorial 2,700word article by blogger and news producer Zev Shalev on his own website, Narativ. Though convincing upon first read, a second read betrays Shalev’s rendered timeline of events and exposes a lack of consideration for other, simpler answers to his query. And like author Dan Brown did with The Da Vinci Code, Shalev builds his conspiracy around Leonardo with a cadre of B-plot characters.

Concerning the Salvator Mundi’s whereabouts, Shalev points to a November 23 article in the London-based Times in which three concerned art-world figures with connections to the painting worry about its fate: Oxford scholar Martin Kemp, who authenticated Salvator Mundi as a true Leonardo; conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini, who led restoration on the painting; and dealer Robert Simon, who acquired the work for just $10,000 in 2005 before its reattribution. The specific quote Shalev uses is from Kemp who states that “Nobody outside the immediate Arab hierarchy knows where it is,” which would make logical security sense considering the state now owns a painting worth nearly a half-billion dollars.

The real mystery derives from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s sudden tweet in September saying that the painting’s museum debut would be postponed, though Salvator Mundi’s unveiling was initially scheduled to occur later that month. No explanation was given then for the sudden delay, and none has been given since.

But Shalev uses this small kernel of truth to reveal a fantabulous spiderweb of corruption. Suddenly, he warps readers back to the 2016 presidential election with a piquant exposition of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Saudi ciphers like George Nader and Joel Zamel. The account plays well within the footprints of two better-known Trump campaign scandals: Don Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Cambridge Analytica’s culling of Facebook data for a political influence stratagem.

Shalev uses the Nader-Zamel affair as a super-villainous synthesis of the above two scandals. According to the New York Times, Nader told Don Jr. that the Saudis “were eager to help your father win election as president,” and proposed a covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign run by Zamel’s Psy-Group, a political consultancy, to help Trump win the presidential election by creating fake social media accounts to proselytize for the would-be president. Here, Shalev admits that Don Jr. has publicly stated that he rejected the partnership and that there are no contracts or invoices on the books. Still, the NYT did report in October that Nader paid Zamel $2 million dollars during the election. Whether or not Psy-Group ultimately carried out any work for the Trump campaign is a question for Mueller’s investigation:

Mr. Nader and Mr. Zamel have given differing accounts over whether Mr. Zamel ultimately carried out the social media effort to help the Trump campaign and why Mr. Nader paid him $2 million after the election, according to people who have discussed the matter with the two men.

The reason for the payment has been of keen interest to Mr. Mueller, according to people familiar with the matter.

In February, Mueller subpoenaed the Cypriot bank accounts of Psy-Group and dispatched a team of investigators to Israel for an interview with Zamel that spring, but within a week, Psy-Group closed its doors.

Shalev wants to know where that $2 million came from and, in an Olympian feat of logical pole-vaulting, sees Salvator Mundi’s $450.3 million price tag in his crosshairs. Incredibly, he squares his argument on the shoulders of a Daily Mail article claiming that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was counter-bidding against his close friend and compatriot, Saudi Prince Bader bin Abdullah Farhan. (It’s helpful to know that the Daily Mail is the United Kingdom’s least-correct tabloid. The publication is so unreliable that Wikipedia has banned it as a source for its articles.) Reuters debunked this report months ago, clarifying that Farhan was the bidder. According to official documents reviewed by the publication, the kingdom’s first culture minister was authorized to make the purchase on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.

Nevertheless, Shalev cannot fathom the stupidity of art market upselling and instead infers that Salvator Mundi’s high price was a cover to launder $300 million to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. After all, the oligarch-on-the-run has a history of overpaying for Trump-adjacent lots. He’s already subject to Mueller’s investigation for purchasing Trump’s Palm Beach home in 2008 for $95 million, about $54 million above its market value. (Keep in mind, Trump’s original asking price for the mansion was $125 million.)

There’s no doubt that rich men travel in small circles, and the art market’s obliqueness is designed precisely to protect the identities of the wealthy who solidify their fortunes by acquiring pricey paintings. What Shalev fails to address, however, is how implausible it would be for the Saudis and Russians to hoodwink Christie’s into a money laundering scheme involving the auction house’s highest-profile sale to date. Not only does he ignore the logistical hurdles of getting past Christie’s compliance team of lawyers and experts, but he lacks insight into how the art market is a people-driven business. The three men involved here are known quantities to auctioneers, who typically vet their clientele. With that in mind, the only way Shalev could salvage his Swiss cheese claim is to accuse the auction house of aiding and abetting the deal. The art market certainly has a money laundering problem, but this scale is unfathomable.

Could Salvator Mundi be the Leonardo that breaks the Saudi camel’s back? Probably not. The speculative fiction of Shalev’s writing certainly has the alluring airs of political intrigue — but like air, it’s depthless.

Pushing conspiracy claims aside, I would argue that the Salvator Mundi’s absence is the result of another political kerfuffle: journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Who knows why the painting’s initial September debut was pushed aside? Maybe the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s staff had conservation concerns. According to one report, the Saudis opted for an acrylic glass over the painting for expedience’s sake, rather than wait for a slower museum-quality finish. Or maybe they wanted to wait for the institution’s one-year anniversary on November 11, as the UAE paper National reported.

On October 2, Khashoggi was brutally dismembered and murdered by Saudi operatives acting on the Crown Prince’s orders, according to the CIA. Subsequent backlash from the international community has quashed the kingdom’s attempts at a good PR spin for Mohammed bin Salman’s reign. Under scrutiny, why would the Louvre Abu Dhabi choose to spotlight their exorbitantly expensive Leonardo purchase? The juxtaposition of such luxury alongside news of the barbaric and extrajudicial killing of a journalist would be too much for the museum to bare.

Thus, I suspect that Salvator Mundi is not “missing,” but rather in hiding for the shame of it all.

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