If you thought there could not be any more intrigue—and confusion—surrounding the recent sale of Leonardo da Vinci‘s record-smashing $450 million Salvator Mundi (circa 1500), think again. This morning, the Louvre Abu Dhabi published a Twitter post asserting that it is the new owner of the painting, which was sold by Christie’s at auction last month.
The announcement follows a flurry of contradictory reports over the last few days about the identity of the buyer. On Tuesday, the Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted in three languages that the 500-year old painting was headed for the just-opened institution. But it was unclear at the time whether the tweet was announcing a purchase or a loan, and representatives from the museum were unable to immediately clarify.
Just hours later, the New York Times broke the story that a little-known Saudi prince with no history as an art collector, Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, had been the winning bidder of the Leonardo.
But things took a turn yet again the next day, when a team of reporters for the Wall Street Journal dropped a report stating that Prince Bader was only acting as a proxy and that the real buyer is Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The news was politically inconvenient, to say the least. In recent weeks, the prince has ordered the arrest of clerics, businessmen, and political rivals in what has been described by some as an unprecedented consolidation of power and framed by the prince as a far-reaching anti-corruption purge. (The WSJ report counted US government intelligence, which had been tracking the crown prince’s moves during this time, among its sources.)
The language of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s latest tweet leaves open the possibility that the work could have been donated to the Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism, perhaps by the crown prince.
Salvator Mundi has now officially become a pawn in a much bigger geopolitical game unfolding across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, have strengthened their relationship amid Prince Mohammed’s rise to power, and both cut diplomatic ties with Qatar this past summer.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi—a $1 billion initiative that was a decade in the making—opened to the public last month, just four days before the record-setting sale.
Prince Bader published a statement in Arabic yesterday that claimed that the initial New York Times report was riddled with inaccuracies. But according to the Guardian, he did not explicitly deny that he had purchased the painting.
Confused? So are we. It remains unclear exactly who really bought the painting, who owns it now, and why. The sputtering announcements, piecemeal leaks, and contradictory reports are exceedingly surprising for a sale of this magnitude.
Representatives for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We will update this story as more information becomes available.
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