LONDON — The Saudi Embassy in Washington on Friday offered a new explanation for the record-breaking $450.3 million purchase last month of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Disputing reports that the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince had bought the painting through a little-known distant cousin, an embassy spokeswoman said in a statement that the cousin had instead acted as an agent for the ministry of culture of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. The painting will hang there in a newly opened branch of the Louvre.
American officials familiar with intelligence reports on the matter, and Arabs familiar with the details of the sale, both reiterated on Friday that the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was the true buyer at the time of the auction.
The purchase comes at an awkward time for the crown prince because he is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the Saudi elite. He has detained or frozen the assets of at least a dozen of his royal cousins and hundreds of other businessmen or officials.
The painting, “Salvator Mundi,” may also offend Saudi sensibilities: Human portraits and especially portraits of religious figures are forbidden under the strict Saudi brand of Islam, and this one raises particular issues because it is depicts Jesus as savior.
The New York Times this week reviewed documents related to the sale that identified the previously anonymous winner of the auction as Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a descendant of an outer branch of the royal family. He has no publicly known history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth. But he is a contemporary, longtime friend and close associate of the crown prince, and prominent Saudi royals have been known to make high-profile purchases through straw buyers.
The Times on Wednesday sent detailed questions about the purchase to Prince Bader. The newspaper also contacted the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Three intermediaries for Prince Bader, including two affiliated with the embassy, asked The Times to delay publication to await a response from Prince Bader.
But at the end of the day the intermediaries said Prince Bader would decline to speak, and around the same time, the Louvre Abu Dhabi said on Twitter that it was expecting to receive “Salvator Mundi,” at which point The Times published its article.
The museum did not disclose whether it expected to receive the painting as a gift, a loan or a rental, and museum officials did not respond to requests for clarification.
Prince Bader, in a short statement on Thursday, questioned unspecified elements in The Times’s article but did not mention the painting, the purchase, the museum or the crown prince.
The Times contacted the Saudi Embassy again on Thursday, after learning from American officials that the crown prince was the true buyer, acting through his old friend, Prince Bader.
The Wall Street Journal, citing American intelligence agencies, also reported that the crown prince was the ultimate buyer.
It was not immediately clear why Prince Bader, the embassy and the museum waited until Friday to assert that he had acted as an agent for the Abu Dhabi museum, not for the crown prince.