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An imagined rendering of the unusual discovery. The museum did not know that its 15th-century copy of a Renaissance masterpiece had gone missing. (edit by Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic)

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In 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” fetched $450.3 million at a Christie’s auction, becoming the most expensive artwork ever sold. This week, a 500-year-old copy of the work, likely painted by a student of Leonardo, was discovered in the relative obscurity of a bedroom cupboard in a Naples apartment. The museum it was stolen from was apparently unaware it had been missing.

The 15th-century work belongs to the Doma Museum of the Basilica di San Domenico Maggiore in the southern Italian city. Naples prosecutor Giovanni Melillo told the Agence France-Presse that the room where the painting was kept had not been opened for three months due to forced shutdowns imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities found no signs of a break-in and could not determine how or when the piece was taken.

Police arrested the apartment’s 36-year-old tenant on suspicion of possessing stolen property, describing his story of purchasing the painting at a flea market as “less than credible.”

“Whoever took the painting wanted it, and it is plausible that it was a commissioned theft by an organization working in the international art trade,” Melillo said.

The San Domenico Maggiore copy of the Renaissance masterpiece has been happily returned to the church’s Muscettola Chapel from where it was inconspicuously stolen. 

Meanwhile, however, the whereabouts of the original “Salvator Mundi” (whose attribution to Leonardo has been contestedremain unknown. The controversial work was acquired at Christie’s by an anonymous bidder who was later revealed to be an ally of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It was slated to be exhibited at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but the museum abruptly canceled the exhibition in 2018, and the painting has not been publicly seen since the sale. Some have theorized that the work is sitting in storage in Geneva or on bin Salman’s private yacht.

Perhaps someone should check the cupboard.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...