‘Salvator Mundi’, an ethereal portrait of Jesus Christ which dates to about 1500, has been deemed to be a work of Leonardo da Vinci's workshop, and not his own. Picture: CHRISTIE’S NEW YORK/REUTERS
‘Salvator Mundi’, an ethereal portrait of Jesus Christ which dates to about 1500, has been deemed to be a work of Leonardo da Vinci's workshop, and not his own. Picture: CHRISTIE’S NEW YORK/REUTERS

Earlier in 2019 there was some speculation as to what had happened to the world’s most expensive painting. That’s after the painting, Salvator Mundi, was sold to a Saudi prince for the record-breaking price of $450m at Christie’s in New York in 2017.

It cost such a huge amount of money because it had, after a decade, been authenticated as a rare work by Leonardo da Vinci.  There are only 20 known works by the master artist in existence but tell that to the Louvre museum in Paris — home to Da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa.

The Salvator Mundi arrived at the Louvre in May in time for the museum’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s death, but the Louvre curators don’t accept it as a work by the artist and have decided to label it “from the workshop of Leonardo”. This is not good news for the painting’s owners as it would render their very expensive and public purchase pretty much worthless.

According to art historian and author of a book on the painting, Ben Lewis, “it is very unlikely it will be shown because the owner of this picture cannot possibly lend it to the Louvre Paris and see it exhibited as ‘Leonardo workshop’ – its value will go down to somewhere north of $1.5m”.

The buyer’s name was originally withheld but it has subsequently emerged that the painting was bought by Prince Badr bin Abdullah al Saud – a minor Saudi royal thought to be acting on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In an interview with the Telegraph, Lewis has suggested that part of the reason for the high price paid for the painting was that the Saudis believed they were bidding against a rival royal family – escalating the bidding from $370m to $400m during the auction.

However, it has since been revealed that the rival bidder was billionaire Chinese art enthusiast Liu Yiquan. He will certainly be smiling if it turns out that the Saudis are about to lose more than $400m on their painting. The Saudis have not given any comment on the potential scandal and it may indeed mean that the fabled painting, after having been out of sight for so long, will once again not see the light of day.

The painting’s authenticity has remained a subject of debate among art critics and historians, some of whom believe that at best it should be attributed to a pupil of Da Vinci’s — pointing out that the background is too flat to be his work, although others have claimed that the flat background is deliberate, forcing viewers to fix their gaze on the image of Christ.

For now the painting looks set to remain at its storage facility in Switzerland.