U.S. government intelligence and a Saudi 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 Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is the buyer of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci that sold for a record $450.3 million last month, according to U.S. government intelligence and a Saudi art-world figure familiar with the purchase, a disclosure that offers a rare glimpse inside a rivalry between two Persian Gulf nations to scoop up some of the world’s masterpieces.
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, the Saudi art-world figure said, “but he is a proxy for MBS.”
“It is a fact that this deal was done via a proxy,” the person said.
The revelation that the crown prince is the purchaser of the sought-after portrait of Jesus Christ —the most expensive painting ever sold at auction—settles one of the biggest mysteries in the art world. And it comes at a fraught political moment for the 32-year-old Saudi leader, who is trying to portray himself as a reformer determined to root out corruption in the oil-rich kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, was identified as the painting’s buyer in U.S. intelligence reports, according to people with direct knowledge of the information. American officials have closely watched Prince Mohammed’s activities, particularly as he moves to sideline contenders to the throne and has arrested rivals in the Saudi capital.
Saudi officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
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.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Prince Bader had purchased the painting, citing documents.
The painting’s sale 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. Collectors often assign an agent or adviser to line up the paperwork and do the actual bidding on artworks.
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 in 2008 a $300 million Museum for Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei to look like a fountain 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.
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 town. 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 auction in November, the former adviser said.
Qatar officials and Christie’s didn’t immediately 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 crown prince’s purchase amounts to his art-world debut, placing him atop a shortlist of wealthy newcomers who are willing to pay more than $100 million for a single work of art.
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 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 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.
The painting may not immediately be heading for a wall in Prince Mohammed’s palace. The recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted Wednesday that the painting would be displayed there, without providing a timeline for the arrangement. Often, a singular 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.