For the third time in its history, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi — a painting of Jesus Christ that was briefly on display at Minnesota Street Project in late 2017 — seems to have gone missing. Sold at auction in November 2017 to an anonymous purchaser who was later determined to be Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, it was scheduled to go on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi, but The New York Times reported that it has vanished.
Whether it has become a victim of geopolitical intrigue or simply been misplaced is unclear. This would all be bad enough — but this also is the world’s most expensive painting, having sold for $450.3 million, and it disappeared twice in its 500-year history.
It wasn’t always so valuable, though. For centuries, experts attributed Salvator Mundi to a figure in the school of da Vinci, but not to the Florentine master himself. As Jonathan Curiel wrote for SF Weekly in 2017:
Da Vinci created the work for King Louis XII of France, and the painting’s history is almost novelistic. Fewer than 20 da Vinci paintings are known to exist, and Salvator Mundi was essentially lost to the art market for hundreds of years — first from 1763 to 1900, Christie’s says, and then for more than 100 years because its owners thought the piece was by a da Vinci acolyte, not the master himself. At a 1958 auction, Salvator Mundi was sold for less than $100.
That’s about $1,350 in today’s dollars, the Times reports. In other words, in only 59 years, the monetary value of the painting went up by a greater amount than the hyperinflation of the Venezuelan bolivar. As a sort of companion piece to the enigmatic Mona Lisa, Salvator Mundi has nonetheless been repainted and restored several times — occasionally crudely. (Jesus had one thumb too many.) The vulgarity didn’t end there, either. As The New Yorker‘s Peter Schejldahl wrote, “With an apparent eye to China, Christie’s downplayed the Christian subject matter and content of the picture by tagging it “the male Mona Lisa.” Never mind religion. Think Renaissance superstar.”
And it’s not as though it’s da Vinci’s finest work by any means. Art critic Jerry Saltz all but disputed the attribution to the master, saying that it’s not that Leonardo “didn’t create it, but that he wouldn’t have.”
As this unfortunate occurrence has transpired only months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s another black eye for Saudi Arabia on the world stage. A planned exhibition and even an insurance company’s examination of the painting have been canceled without notice. (Definitely read the full story; it’s juicy.) But if you’re kicking yourself over your failure to see Salvator Mundi in San Francisco a couple years ago, know that sooner or later, a most-expensive-painting-in-the-world will probably come around again. It wasn’t so long ago that a $40 million Van Gogh held the title.