In “Profusion of Confusion” on her CultureGrrl blog at Artsjournal.com, Lee Rosenbaum splashes a little cold water on the two leading theories about why Salvator Mundi, the heavily restored painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, did not appear in the Louvre’s blockbuster 2019-20 retrospective on the artist: Either it was because of the Louvre’s refusal to meet the demands of the painting’s Saudi Arabian owners to hang it next to the Mona Lisa (the “male and female” Mona Lisas finally meet!) or it was because the Saudi Arabian owners were miffed over the refusal of the Louvre’s experts to fully sanction the painting as an authentic da Vinci.
Those conflicting versions come primarily from the release of a new French documentary, The Savior for Sale by director Antoine Vitkine, which quotes French experts concluding that, at most, Leonardo “had a hand” in the painting and its reputation may be a scam. But the experts’ conclusions got some strong push-back from a multi-billion-dollar development deal French diplomats were trying to sign with the Saudis — though the museum curators eventually prevailed, and the deal to show the Mona Lisa was stopped.
Against that theory is a subsequent, front-page, New York Times report that concludes negotiations broke down, not over the painting’s authenticity — which the Louvre’s experts had reportedly affirmed in a printed-but-not-released, 45-page summary — but over the French officials’ seemingly snitty refusal to agree to Saudi demands on how the painting should be displayed.
The painting achieved its current notoriety in 2017 when it was auctioned at Christie’s for the sky-high price of $450.3 million, amid a great deal of media prep and fanfare. This followed the Dallas Museum of Art’s inability in 2012 to raise the money to purchase it for less than half that amount.
According to Rosenbaum, “It is the role of the museum director and curator, not the lender, to make the final determination as to a painting’s placement.” In other words, Louvre museum officials were not being unreasonable if they balked at any placement demands, especially considering the elaborate security arrangements that would have to be made. The Saudi’s demand would require moving the Mona Lisa to a different location (visitors to the Louvre know the painting currently hangs by itself in not the easiest gallery to get to and on a wall with no real room to hang Salvator Mundi next to it).
On the other hand, Rosenbaum complicates the idea, first promulgated by Christie’s auction house, that a “consensus” of experts verified the painting’s origins: The Met’s curator Carmen Bambach is definitely not among them and her view was not reflected in that report. That judgment put her at odds with the Met’s own European curator Luke Syson (who has since moved to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum).
Ultimately, though — after re-hashing the ‘disappearance’ of the painting and the many questions about who, precisely, owns it — Rosenbaum settles for the diplomatic squabble as the probable cause rather than a dispute about the painting’s legitmacy among curators:
My theory that diplomatic relations, not cultural relations, were the decisive factor here is supported by the reported involvement of French President Emmanuel Macron himself in this contretemps (as detailed in The Art Newspaper‘s account of the contents of the new French documentary). The entry of the French government’s top official into the fray suggests that this was more than a mere squabble between two museums.
Ironically, though, Macron ultimately refused to kowtow to the Saudi demand, as The Art Newspaper reported — quoting from Vitkine’s film — partly because to do so would cast the Louvre’s cultural authority into doubt:
President Macron took the decision . . . Understand, at stake was our credibility, the credibility of France, of the Louvre, over a long period. In the long term we would no longer be lent works if we did this sort of thing. . . . You have to have convictions that go beyond the present.