Who bought the Salvator Mundi? (ctd.)

December 12 2017

Image of Who bought the Salvator Mundi? (ctd.)

Picture: via Twitter

So this much we know for sure; the picture has 'been acquired' by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as the museum has confirmed, and will go on display there. But who actually bought the picture? Christie's statement says:

Christie’s can confirm that the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi is acquiring ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci.

...'is acquiring' is interesting wording, and implies a break in ownership between the Christie's sale and now. As I mentioned below, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported that the picture was bought by the Saudis. The Times first mentioned the name of Prince Bader bin Abdullah, but the WSJ believes he was acting for the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and also that the picture has been gifted to the Louvre Abu Dhabi by him.

But CNN has reported that the painting was not a gift, and was definitely bought by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and that the Saudis were just intermediaries. CNN published a statement by the Saudi embassy in Washington:

"His Highness Prince Badr, as a friendly supporter of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, attended its opening ceremony on November 8th and was subsequently asked by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to act as an intermediary purchaser for the piece."

Such mystery is typical of anything related to Leonardo da Vinci, but the pattern of events is unusual in the art world. I'm told that the US government believes that Mohammed bin Salman was indeed the buyer at Christie's. But why would the Saudi Crown Prince, who is busy shaking up Saudi Arabia in the most dramatic way for decades, be used as an intermediary to buy a picture of Christ for a museum in another country? Was he looking for a commission? Of course not. And are we to believe that the Louvre Abu Dhabi didn't have the cash or an account with Christie's? Again, of course not.

So what's going on. I'm speculating, but I wonder if the bidding war for this picture was due to a battle for cultural supremacy between the Emiratis (with their Louvre Abu Dhabi) and the Qataris (with their less glamorous sounding Qatar Museums Authority).

Both countries have been on buying sprees, as they seek to create world class museums from scratch. The Qataris have set many price records on their buying spree, such as the reported $250m for Cezanne's Card Players. But what might have given the battle for Salvator Mundi added zing is the diplomatic falling out between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both are majority Sunni nations, but the Qataris have been accused of being more aligned with (Shia) Iran, and have also irked the Saudis through their media outlets such as Al Jazeera. Amidst all this, the UAE are important allies for Saudi Arabia and their energetic new Crown Prince.

But this is all guesswork, so don't pay it much attention. Maybe the underbidders were connected to an Asian museum, as has been speculated. Either way, we're seeing a return to the sort of national bidding wars for great art that defined collecting in the 17th Century. 

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