The Art Newspaper has a story about a new French film, The Savior for Sale by director Antoine Vitkine, which delves into why the Louvre’s 2019 blockbuster exhibition of Leonardo’s works ultimately lacked Salvator Mundi, the contested portrait of Jesus that was sold for $450 million, the largest amount ever paid for an artwork. The film, which premieres on French television April 13th, includes interviews about how Saudi Arabia pulled the painting from the museum show when the Louvre’s experts concluded that, at most, da Vinci “had a hand in it.”
But a front page New York Timess story upends that account, although Antoine Vitkine stands by his film. According to the Times, the Louvre’s experts did, in fact, recognize the painting as a Leonardo.
What prevented the display of the painting in the museum exhibition was the demand of the Saudi Culture Ministry – which actually owns the painting and not Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as has been widely reported — wanted the painting to hang next to the Mona Lisa.
“Far from a dispute about art scholarship,” the Times reports, “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.”
In 2012, former Dallas Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson reportedly had the 15th-century painting at the DMA and was showing it to patrons to try to raise enough money to purchase it for the museum’s permanent collection. At the time, the asking price was $200 million. Anderson’s effort was not successful — and the painting’s then-owners moved on to Christie’s and what became a historic and controversial auction in 2017.
The attribution has remained a matter of extensive debate ever since – with some proclaiming that Anderson’s effort to acquire a work by the celebrated Old Master had been ‘vindicated’ by the Saudi’s over-the-top purchase, while other experts strongly disagreed. One reason opinions vary: Even the Leonardo advocates recognize the painting has been amply touched-up.
When it came to the Louvre’s exhibition in 2019, The Art Newspaper reports, “An anonymous senior official in French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, codenamed “Jacques,” tells Vitkine that the Louvre’s extensive scientific examination of the painting, conducted in secret, concluded that Leonardo da Vinci himself “only contributed” to the picture, and that its “authenticity” could not be confirmed.”
This was much more than a quibble among art specialists: France was negotiating a ten-year deal, “potentially worth tens of billions of euros, that gives France an exclusive role to develop” Al-Ula, the historic “ghost town” and the area around it as a major cultural site and tourist destination in the Saudi peninsula.
The Art Newspaper quotes a go-between in the negotiations over the painting who speaks in The Savior for Sale:
It was very brave of the Louvre to say, ‘this is what we think, many others may think differently, but this is what we think as a scientific reflection on the painting’. I trust the director of the Louvre, I follow the scientists, it’s not for me to say. I have confidence in the Louvre, it’s a question of confidence, the director of the Louvre decides where the painting is going to be shown and in what context.
Unsurprisingly, when this was communicated to the Saudi officials, they were not happy.
But the Times argues it was the French who wanted to use the prestige of the Louvre exhibition as a negotiating tool: They refused to go public with their studies until Saudi Arabia agreed that Salvator Mundi would be part of the 2019 exhibition.
When the negotiations ended in a stand-off, the Louvre then suppressed its book — because it was meant to accompany the now-Salvator-less exhibition, and the Louvre is not permitted to opine about works not in its galleries. The Louvre has not commented on the book nor on The Savior for Sale.
Martin Kemp, the British art historian, the most important expert to attribute Salvator Mundi to da Vinci, has said that Christie’s “absolutely” overstated the painting’s provenance. In the film, he says, “I wouldn’t stick my neck out unless I was reasonably confident, but you can always be wrong. If I’m wrong, nobody died—somebody lost a lot of money.”
In contrast, the Times quotes Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, a curator who oversaw a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London that included the “Salvator Mundi.”
“Frankly, I think all that taradiddle would have evaporated,” Lyson said, if only the painting were displayed. “People could decide for themselves by experiencing the picture.”
The painting has not been seen in public since its auction.