Da Vinci's mysterious $450 million Salvator Mundi downgraded

Prado museum downgrades Da Vinci's mysterious $450 million Salvator Mundi, bought by Saudi prince
2 min read
15 November, 2021
The Salvator Mundi mysteriously disappeared from the art scene after selling for millions to a Saudi buyer in 2017.
The 'Salvator Mundi' is a painting from the Leonardo Da Vinci school dating back to the 15th century [FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty]

The Salvator Mundi, which was bought for a record-setting $450m in November 2017 as an authentic art piece by Leonardo da Vinci by a Saudi buyer, has been downgraded by curators at a major museum.

The catalogue of the exhibition Leonardo and the Copy of the Mona Lisa, organised by the Spanish Prado Museum, lists the Salvator Mundi as a piece that could have been realised by Leonardo da Vinci or in his workshop. This casts doubts over whether the Italian polymath did paint the piece.

The exhibition will run in Madrid until 23 January 2022.

"Some specialists consider that there was a now lost prototype [of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi] while others think that [this] version is the original," Prado curator Ana Gonzáles Mozo commented in the catalogue.

It listed Salvator Mundi in the category of "attributed works, workshop or authorised and supervised by Leonardo", and not on the list of paintings "by Leonardo".

Although the status of the piece has been questioned by multiple specialists, the Prado is the most established art institution to do so thus far.

A mystery buyer bought the Salvator Mundi at a Christie's auction in 2017 for a record-setting $450 million, sending the art world into a frenzy. 

Sources alleged the painting was bought by Saudi Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah for Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In December 2017, Abu Dhabi announced it was behind the buy and planned to display the piece at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. However, the painting was never exhibited in public afterward. Its mysterious disappearance intensified speculations about its true ownership and location and deepened questions around its authenticity.

In June 2020, reports claimed that Saudi Arabia was holding the painting and would showcase it in a new museum, which is yet to build. 

The late unveiling of the Salvator Mundi was reportedly part of plans to establish Saudi Arabia as a major art destination. Saudi officials claimed the kingdom intends to build major art institutions to attract tourists and generate "billions" in revenues.

The Prado reportedly tried to borrow the piece for the exhibition but failed to obtain it.

The painting depicts Jesus Christ emerging from the darkness and blessing the world with one hand while holding a transparent globe in the other.

News that it was part of a Saudi cultural plan sparked internal controversy in the kingdom, some Saudis expressing reluctance to centre a major touristic attraction on Christian rather than Islamic art.