French curators had worked for a decade to prepare a major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. When it opened, though, the most talked-about painting they had planned to show — “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive work ever sold at auction — was nowhere to be seen.
Plucked from shabby obscurity at a New Orleans estate sale, the painting had been sold in 2017 as a rediscovered “lost” Leonardo and fetched more than $450 million from an anonymous bidder who kept it hidden from view. The chance to see it at the Louvre museum’s anniversary show two years later had created a sensation in the international art world, and its absence whipped up a storm of new questions.
Had the Louvre concluded that the painting was not actually the work of Leonardo, as a vocal handful of scholars had insisted? Had the buyer — reported to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, though he had never acknowledged it — declined to include it in the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion that the brash Saudi prince might have gambled a fortune on a fraud had already inspired a cottage industry of books, documentaries, art world gossip columns, and even a proposed Broadway musical.
None of that was true.
In fact, the crown prince had secretly shipped the “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre more than a year earlier, in 2018, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Times. The report also states that the painting belongs to the Saudi Culture Ministry — something the Saudis have
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