Authorship of Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting in history after being auctioned in 2017 for 450 million dollars as a lost work by Leonardo da Vinci, has become a true “state secret” with geopolitical interests that go far beyond artistic relevance painting and that have strained relations between Paris and Riyadh. This is what the author of the documentary affirms Da Vinci up for auction: the story of the Salvator Mundi, French journalist Antonie Vitkine, according to which the Louvre confirmed in 2018 that the painting comes from the Renaissance master’s workshop, but that it is not his work, although the museum decided not to make its conclusions public. Despite the verdict of the experts, Saudi Arabia pressured France so that the painting allegedly acquired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salmán (MBS), as revealed by the press, be included in the Da Vinci retrospective that the Parisian gallery inaugurated at the end 2019. This would have validated a work whose origins have been the subject of controversy for years and with which the Riyadh regime sought to shore up its image of modernization and change.
“The Louvre refused to expose the painting under the signature of Leonardo Da Vinci, as Bin Salmán demanded, and the case reached the Elysee for the decision to be made, but despite everything the secret about the scientific discoveries was kept,” he explains Viktine in an interview in Paris with journalists from the Lena group, including EL PAÍS. “The truth won, but at the price of a state secret,” adds Vitkine, whose documentary will be broadcast on French television next Tuesday and which will be released in Spain by the distributor Avalon in July.
To understand the large number of interests at stake behind the Salvator, we must go back to April 2018 and Bin Salmán’s official visit to Paris. France is a key partner of Saudi Arabia in general and, in particular, in the juicy project of Al Ula, the pre-Islamic city that Riyadh wants to turn into a tourist and cultural complex.
The Saudi crown prince was received – and entertained – by the president, Emmanuel Macron. And they talked about Salvator Mundi.
“The Elysee explained to us that it was important for MBS to present itself as the person who culturally opened Saudi Arabia and as a symbol of modernity,” he explains in the film. Pierre, name behind which a senior member of the Ministry of Culture who attended the meetings is hidden. The Salvator Mundi it was the linchpin of this strategy. But there was a problem: by then, the voices of international experts who doubted that it was a Da Vinci were growing.
Riyadh decided to send the Salvator for an authentication process at the Louvre, which was preparing a major exhibition on the Renaissance master for the end of 2019. The painting remained in the museum for three months, which has a unique particle accelerator in the world that allows in-depth analysis of the plays. “I saw it myself,” he says in the documentary Jacques, the other high anonymous source of the French Government. The verdict was overwhelming: “The scientific expertise showed that Leonardo only contributed to that painting, so we informed the Saudis.”
It was not the answer that Riyadh wanted and, above all, a Bin Salmán who played a lot by betting heavily on such a controversial team of origin.
“We are talking about a prestigious purchase,” explains Viktine. “It is part of a context of Saudi Arabia’s desire to become a cultural center with the construction of museums. And when museums are built, paintings are needed. But Bin Salman ran into a problem, the fact that Saudi Arabia is not as rich as it seems. And that was a political problem for him. It was difficult to assume ”. Especially when the acquisition of the Salvator for 450 million dollars (380 million euros at the time) coincided with the arrest ordered by MBS of two hundred strongmen of the kingdom accused of having embezzled 86,000 million euros. Why risk so much for a work with so many chiaroscuro? “By buying that painting, a European painting, an image of Christ, I also wanted to send a message to the West demonstrating its modernity and westernization,” according to Vitkine.
In September 2018, around the time the Louvre’s opinion came out, the Salvator Mundi it was removed without explanation from the exhibition that opened the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. However, his presentation in the Parisian art gallery a year later was doubtful until the last moment. The documentary reveals that the Louvre was willing to exhibit the controversial work, but not as Riyadh intended.
“The demand for MBS was very clear,” he says. Jacques on the tape. “Expose the Salvator Mundi next to the Gioconda without explanations, present it as a 100% Da Vinci ”. In return, Riyadh promised France “business, a fund,” says the source, without specifying. The case reached the Government, where the then Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, and his foreign counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, advocated giving in to Riyadh, says the source. “My position, which I made known to the highest level of the State, is that exposing it under Saudi conditions was equivalent to laundering a work of 450 million dollars.”
The final decision is made by Macron at the end of September 2019: Saudi conditions will not be accepted. “The credibility of France and the Louvre was at stake,” he defends Jacques. The Salvator Mundi he becomes the great absentee from the Parisian museum exhibition. But they are silent on the reasons.
A silence that lasts. Consulted by EL PAÍS, this Thursday the Louvre sent the same answer that it gave to the director at the time: “We decided not to answer your questions, since the painting was not loaned for the Leonardo da Vinci retrospective. We will not comment on his film either. ” A silence that Vitkine claims to understand. “It was necessary to protect the interests of Bin Salmán and above all the interests of France before him. They are very important interests ”, he remembers. “From the moment the Louvre refuses to have its credibility undermined, the agreement, I suppose, was to keep secrets. That is why the Louvre has never spoken. Keeping the secret is saving Bin Salmán’s face ”.