Is $450m Leonardo da Vinci painting a fake?

Unveiling of world’s most expensive artwork at Louvre Abu Dhabi postponed

Salvator Mundi on display before auction in New York
(Image credit: Carl Court/Getty Images)

The world’s most expensive painting, which was due to go on display at the Louvre Abi Dhabi later this month, has had its unveiling postponed, fueling renewed speculation about its authenticity.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which was purchased at auction in New York last November for $450.3m (£342.1m) after a tense 20-minute sale involving unidentified bidders, had been scheduled to go display on 18 September.

The identity of the buyer was initially unknown but later revealed to be Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family who was said to be acting on behalf of the museum in Abu Dhabi.

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There has been much speculation about whether Abdullah had in fact been a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. The Guardian reports that a US intelligence assessment had initially identified Bin Salman as the owner “but the extent of his involvement in the purchase remains unknown”.

But while its ownership has sparked fierce speculation, its provenance and authenticity has also been questioned.

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Dated around 1500, the painting is one of fewer than 20 attributed to Leonardo. Its whereabouts were unknown for over two centuries before it re-emerged. Initially attributed to one of Leonardo’s assistants, it was sold in 1958 for just $60.

Its inclusion in the National Gallery’s 2011 exhibition Leonardo, however, “sealed its acceptance as a fully autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci … after more than six years of painstaking research and inquiry to document the painting’s authenticity”, says Christies.

However, the German art historian Frank Zöllner wrote in the preface to the 2017 edition of his book, Leonardo – the Complete Paintings and Drawings, that the painting “exhibits a strongly developed sfumato technique that corresponds more closely to the manner of a Leonardo pupil active in the 1520s than to the style of the master himself”.

Separate findings from University of Oxford art historian Matthew Landrus set to be published this week claim only 20% to 30% of the painting was actually completed by Leonardo himself.

Speaking to CNN in August, Landrus outlined his theory that the great painter's assistant, Bernardino Luini, was largely responsible for the artwork.

The timing of the publication has fueled speculation about why the museum has postponed the painting’s unveiling, but UAE state-paper The National has a more prosaic theory, suggesting the museum might be waiting for its one year anniversary, on 11 November.

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