U.S. government intelligence and a Middle East art-world figure familiar with the purchase say Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman used a proxy to purchase the 500-year-old ‘Salvator Mundi’
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured at a Nov. 14 meeting, is identified as the buyer of da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi,’ according to U.S. intelligence and a Middle East art-world figure. Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Shane Harris in Washington,
Kelly Crow in Miami and
Summer Said in Dubai
Updated Dec. 7, 2017 7:35 p.m. ET
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is leading an austerity drive at home, is the bidder who paid a record $450.3 million for a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ, settling one of the art world’s biggest mysteries.
Prince Mohammed, known by his initials MBS, was identified as the buyer of the 500-year-old painting, “Salvator Mundi,” in U.S. intelligence reports, according to people with direct knowledge of the information. American officials have closely watched the activities of the 32-year-old, who is trying to portray himself as a reformer determined to root out corruption in the oil-rich kingdom.
“The image of the crown prince spending that much money to buy a painting when he’s supposed to be leading an anticorruption drive is staggering,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and leading expert on Saudi politics.
Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, a lesser-known figure and a distant relative of the crown prince, was the nominal winner of the auction, held at Christie’s in November, a Middle East art-world figure familiar with the purchase said, “but he is a proxy for MBS.”
“It is a fact that this deal was done via a proxy,” the person said.
'Salvator Mundi' sold for $450.3 million at Christie’s New York on Nov. 15, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
Prince Bader emerged a little over a year ago in the auction arena, winning works from several major houses. While it is unclear which pieces he won in bidding, people familiar with the matter say they suspected he wasn’t buying for himself. Collectors often assign an agent or adviser to line up the paperwork and do the actual bidding on artworks.
The sources with knowledge of U.S. intelligence said that Prince Bader may be named as the buyer on paper, but they added that Prince Mohammed is the ultimate customer. Prince Bader has collaborated with MBS in the past on business ventures and charitable causes.
Saudi officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Prince Bader had purchased the painting, citing documents.
The purchase—the most money ever paid for a single artwork at auction—amounts to the crown prince’s art-world debut, placing him atop a shortlist of wealthy newcomers who are willing to pay more than $100 million for a piece of art.
It reflects the trophy-hunting atmosphere dominating the international art market lately, as billionaires from China, the Middle East and beyond compete for a handful of masterpieces on the block. The sale also marks a new front in the battle among Middle East royal families for cultural prowess.
For more than a decade, Qatar has reigned as the Gulf region’s undisputed art power, with former emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani erecting a $300 million Museum for Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei, in Doha in 2008. to look like a fountain he saw in Cairo.
Under the direction of the emir’s daughter, the Qataris paid top dollar for pieces by Mark Rothko and Paul Cézanne. Two years ago, her private purchase of Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian scene, “When Will You Marry?” for roughly $300 million, stood as the most-expensive painting ever sold—until now.
Finding the $450 Million Salvator Mundi: A Love Story
Art dealer Robert Simon and his colleague Alexander Parish bought a painting by an unknown artist in 2005. Simon then asked his friend Dianne Modestini to restore it. Her work on the piece eventually led to the discovery that it was Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," and helped her through one of the hardest times in her life. Image: Robert Libetti/The Wall Street Journal
Within art circles, Riyadh and Jeddah aren’t yet cultural hotbeds on par with Qatar’s Doha or the Emirates’ Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet in buying the da Vinci, dealers say, Saudi Arabia has managed to lock in cultural bragging rights and swivel attention to its own emerging art scene, which includes galleries like Athr that show at international fairs as well as rising-star artists like Abdulnasser Gharem, whose installation of a golden dome partly tilted like a mousetrap, “Messenger,” sold for $842,500 at a Christie’s auction in Dubai six years ago.
And, in a twist, a former adviser to the Qataris said Sotheby’s offered the family a chance to buy the da Vinci six years ago for around $80 million, but the family turned the house down. The piece later sold to Russian fertilizer billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who resold it last month at Christie’s. The Qataris didn’t bid on the work at the November auction, the former adviser said.
Christie’s declined to comment. Qatar officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Called “ Salvator Mundi, ” meaning savior of the world, the painting depicts Christ as a Renaissance man dressed in flowing blue robes. While Muslims regard Christ as a prophet, Islamic religious scholars and clerics generally regard the depiction of human forms of prophets as a sacrilege.
Unlike da Vinci’s “Last Supper” or “Mona Lisa,” the portrait isn’t instantly recognizable as the artist’s work, but it was nevertheless considered a plum for its rarity. The painting also has a controversial provenance. While some critics suspect “Salvator Mundi” is a copy, London’s National Gallery of Art and other curators have vouched for the work as an original after it was unearthed at an estate sale in 2005 and subsequently restored.
Prince Mohammed’s extravagant purchase of “ Salvator Mundi, ” the only da Vinci in private hands, comes at a time of deep economic and political uncertainty in Saudi Arabia.
The favorite son of King Salman has overseen austerity measures on government ministries to cope with oil-price declines, although some of those measures were reversed this summer. The crown prince, who only became the second in line to the throne in June, has recently launched an anticorruption crackdown that netted other Saudi princes, government ministers and prominent businessmen.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opened last month, tweeted Wednesday that the da Vinci painting would be displayed there.
The painting may not immediately be heading for a wall in Prince Mohammed’s palace. The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted Wednesday that “Salvator Mundi,” would be displayed there, without providing a timeline for the arrangement. Often, a masterpiece can drive crowds to a cultural destination. The Louvre in Paris said it estimates that 80% of its 7.4 million visitors last year came at the outset to see the “Mona Lisa.”
A spokeswoman for the Abu Dhabi museum declined Thursday to give further details. But the painting’s destination may help explain the crown prince’s political motives in acquiring it.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which has deepened ties with Saudi Arabia during Prince Mohammed’s rise. The U.A.E. has long tried to establish itself as a cultural hub to compete with political rival Qatar. Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in June because of a long-simmering tensions between them.
Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Mohammed Bin Zayed, has acted as a mentor for Prince Mohammed as the young Saudi leader has laid out grandiose economic visions for the kingdom and sought to attract hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment.
—Asa Fitch in Dubai contributed to this article.