The painting’s fate, after selling it for $ 450 million in 2017, captivated the art world. The painting has not been shown to the public since then, with some art insiders claiming that it was stored in a warehouse in Switzerland. But someone who saw the artwork displayed on the Sirene yacht last year said he was “extremely surprised that he was not in Switzerland as other people think”. Others knew he was in Saudi Arabia, but they didn’t know exactly where.
The elegant black-and-white Crown Prince yacht – which he bought in late 2016 after being outfitted in 2011 with two helicopters, three swimming pools, ten luxurious rooms and an indoor climbing wall – is now docked at a Dutch maintenance shipyard. Two people familiar with the matter said that shortly before Sirin left for maintenance, the painting was moved to a secret location inside Saudi Arabia.
Rumors have circulated about the painting’s whereabouts since art dealer Kenny Stechatcher wrote on Artnet.com in June 2019 that it was taken overnight and transported to the yacht.
Stephen Irisotti, a Philadelphia-based art restoration worker who has worked on top artist’s paintings, said Serene’s seawater ocean could endanger 500-year-old layers of wood and paint pigments if the painting was exposed to constantly fluctuating temperatures while on board.
“The paintings are complex, their structures are multi-layered, and they love stability … This painting was already unstable,” said Erisotti, referring to the extensive restoration work that filled parts of Jesus’ face and robe before the artwork was sold.
The restoration official added that the painting could remain undamaged if viewed in a room with precise temperature and humidity control.
Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, bought the Leonardo painting at Christie’s 2017 auction. The bid was submitted by Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a lesser known figure and a relative of the crown prince. Prince Badr said at the time that he had made a presentation as a “loving supporter” of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a new museum in the neighboring UAE. That museum said it would unveil the painting but it never did.
The artwork was then supposed to be exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris in late 2019. Vincent Deluven, the curator of the Louvre, confirmed in the weeks before the exhibition opened that he had asked the owners of “Salvatore Mundi” to borrow it for his pioneering exhibition, which coincided with the 500th anniversary of his death. Great Renaissance Artist.
Then as now, controversy revolved around the painting’s authenticity. DeLouvine said at the time that he intended to include the research that his team conducted while the painting was in Paris prior to the show, which indicated that Louvre scholars supported the idea that Leonardo painted the image of Christ. These findings could have been included in the exhibition catalog had the painting been loaned to the exhibition, giving the artwork important validation of its authenticity, something the Saudis had hoped for.
The painting was never shown. According to Saudi and French officials, the kingdom shipped the painting to France but later refused to loan it to the exhibition after the Louvre Museum’s trustees refused to hang it next to the “Mona Lisa,” Leonardo’s masterpiece, which the museum considers unmovable, and hangs in a specially constructed hall to accommodate the massive crowds and heavy guard.
“Both sides refused to budge,” said a Saudi official familiar with the stalemate. “For the kingdom, it was very important to get what it wanted after the criticism that the crown prince was exposed to for paying nearly half a billion dollars for a disputed board.”
“I will not say that it is a full diplomatic confrontation between the two countries, but the crown prince felt insulted by the French,” the official added.
Saudi government spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment.
A French official familiar with the dispute said the Foreign Ministry was concerned that the incident could have a major impact on the wide-ranging strategic and economic ties between France and Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps some of the controversy boils down to a misunderstanding of how important the “Mona Lisa” is in the Louvre. Deluven, a curator who spent a decade collecting works for the Leonardo Gallery, said he didn’t even ask to borrow the famous photo, which hangs in the hall on the floor above the galleries used to display Leonardo. The museum said at the time that the “Mona Lisa” usually attracted up to 30,000 people a day, more than four times the crowd that Leonardo’s show was able to handle safely.
Art in Saudi Arabia tends to appear wherever its kings dictate it, so the idea that one painting cannot be relocated to suit their desires seems to be difficult for them to understand.
Questions about the ultimate fate of “Salvatore Mundi” inside Saudi Arabia have also sparked turmoil in the art world. The kingdom’s culture ministry told the Wall Street Journal last year that it plans to build a new museum to display the work as part of a multi-billion-dollar effort to make Saudi Arabia a global art destination.
The painting’s eventual appearance there may be a delicate matter because the country’s cultural campaign hinges on highlighting its history as the center of Islam, and not displaying the European artist’s image of Christ as “the savior of the world,” which is the meaning of its Latin title.
“It’s a matter of perception,” said Stefano Carboni, chief executive of the ministry’s Museums Committee, last year. “What would you say about the Saudi identity if we put a picture of that painting on a poster?”
Carboni said he hopes to display Leonardo’s work in a museum of Western art that could be next to another museum focusing on Islamic art, the main focus of the kingdom. Those museums have yet to be built.