The mystery of why the Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, didn’t appear at the blockbuster 2019 Leonardo da Vinci show at the Louvre in Paris is unraveled in a new documentary, set to premiere on French television on April 13.
In the film, The Savior for Sale, director Antoine Vitkine speaks with anonymous sources who claim that the plan to exhibit the work fell through because the Louvre refused to bow to demands from Saudi Arabia to show the painting as an autograph Leonardo, reports the Art Newspaper.
The museum is said to have conducted its own scientific analysis of the $450 million work, which smashed every auction record in history with its 2017 sale at Christie’s New York. The Louvre disagreed with the auction house’s billing of the work as “the male Mona Lisa,” and the last painting by the Renaissance master to exist in private hands.
“The scientific evidence was that Leonardo da Vinci only made a contribution to the painting. There was no doubt,” says a senior French government official who goes by the code name Jacques in the film.
The Louvre informed the painting’s owner, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, of its findings, but he balked.
“MBS laid down very clear conditions—show the Salvator Mundi beside the Mona Lisa without any other explanation, present it as 100 percent Leonardo da Vinci,” Jacques said.
In September 2019, with the exhibition set to open the following month, French President Emmanuel Macron decided not to acquiesce to these demands.
“At stake was our credibility, the credibility of France, of the Louvre,” Jacques said. “My position, which I communicated to the highest level, was that the Saudis’ conditions were unreasonable and that exhibiting it on their terms would have been laundering a work at $450 million.”
The museum, still hopeful an arrangement could be made, went so far as to produce two copies of the exhibition catalogue—one with the Salvator Mundi, and one without—contingent on how the negotiations went. In the end, the long-awaited show debuted in October without the work.
Complicating the narrative is the fact that the Louvre published a standalone Salvator Mundi book, which it pulled before its release, and after the painting was excluded from the show. (The Louvre does not write about privately owned works that it has not exhibited.)
The book’s preface stated that “the results of the historical and scientific study presented in this publication allow us to confirm the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci,” suggesting that the book was produced in cooperation with the Saudi ministry of culture.
The Louvre and Louvre Abu Dhabi both declined to comment on the film. The the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism had not responded to inquiries from Artnet News by press time.
The painting has not been seen publicly since its sale at auction, but continues to make headlines, most recently when an art historian minted it as an NFT. He hopes to sell the blockchain version of the work for $450 million and give the proceeds to the family who made just $700 from the original painting’s sale in 2005.