In fact, the crown prince had secretly shipped the “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre more than a year earlier, in 2018, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Times. The report also states that the painting belongs to the Saudi Culture Ministry — something the Saudis have never acknowledged.
A team of French scientists subjected the unframed canvas to a weekslong forensic examination with some of the most advanced technology available to the art world, and in their undisclosed report they had pronounced with more authority than any previous assessment that the painting appeared to be the work of Leonardo’s own hand.
Yet the Saudis had withheld it nonetheless, for entirely different reasons: a disagreement over a Saudi demand that their painting of Jesus should hang next to the “Mona Lisa,” several French officials said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
Far from a dispute about art scholarship, the withdrawal of the painting appears instead to have turned on questions of power and ego.
Some art world skeptics say they suspect the Saudis were never serious about including the painting in the French show, and had wanted to keep the work under wraps to increase the commercial potential of installing it later at a planned tourism site in the kingdom. Current and former French officials, though, say that the Saudis were eager for their newly acquired trophy to hang at the Louvre, as long as it was placed beside the world’s most famous painting.
Dismissing those demands as irrational and unworkable, the French, in turn, refused to make public their own positive assessment of its authenticity unless the Saudis let the “Salvator Mundi” be included in the exhibition in the Louvre, which the French government oversees.
And the resulting diplomatic standoff between the French and the Saudis has kept the painting out of sight as the cloud of intrigue around it continues to swell.
“Frankly, I think all that taradiddle would have evaporated,” said Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, a curator who oversaw a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London that included the “Salvator Mundi.”
If only the painting were displayed, he explained, “people could decide for themselves by experiencing the picture.”