The most expensive painting ever sold went for just over $450 million in 2017. The exact details are this: in November 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold at auction for $450,300,000 to an unknown buyer.
The buyer was later revealed to be Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud—a Saudi prince from “a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth,” according to The New York Times.
Prince Bader’s purchase of “Salvator Mundi” was, at the time, more than just slightly controversial. That’s partially because of the price; the painting went for at least three times the amount experts had predicted when it was auctioned off at Christie’s New York.
The real question, of course, is what drove the price up to nearly half a billion dollars? To provide a brief frame of reference for the amount collectors pay for renowned works, the previous record for art sold at auction was set in 2015 for a Picasso. The Picasso work, “Les Femmes d’Algers,” went for $179 million at Christie’s New York.
“Salvator Mundi” went for nearly $300 million more than the Picasso in 2015. Why?
That question is really just the tip of the controversial iceberg.
The fact that the buyer started out entirely unknown amped up the controversy factor. Tracking down who the buyer was became quite an endeavor. To finally find that the highest bidder had no history of art collection added to the mystery. The intrigue was further compounded by the fact that “Salvator Mundi,” a distinctly Christian work depicting Christ head-on looking into the eyes’ of the beholder, was purchased by a member of the Saudi royal family.
And then there’s one of the biggest points of contention to date: no one knows where the work currently is. Rumors tend to swirl about its imminent appearance at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, but it has yet to actually show up.
The final, and most significant point of controversy is the actual authenticity of the painting. The work has only been attributed to da Vinci since 2011, a mere six years before its $450 million sale. That’s perceived to be a suspicious feat considering there are only 20 Leonardo da Vinci paintings that exist on the planet.
As for the sale price, it’s attributable to any number of things, of course, depending upon who you ask. Some experts will say it was the marketing and hype Christie’s built around the work. The auction house, deliberately put the work “in front of the wealthiest and keenest buyers,” said The Guardian, by displaying it in the “post-war and contemporary sale, rather than in an old masters sale.” On the other hand, the politically minded will point to the significance of a Saudi prince paying top dollar for a Christian work from the Italian renaissance. And then, of course, the contentious dialogue around it had a huge hand in boosting its value.
The question of authenticity returns to the spotlight with some regularity—the latest conversation happening in the last few days, when a copy of “Salvator Mundi” popped up on the Italian art scene on October 30.
Torino museum Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea announced its intent to display “Salvator Mundi” to the public as part of their “D’Apres Leonardo” exhibit. The museum even further stirred the intrigue pot when they released a statement saying “Will Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea present a painting that could be the famous ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci?”
Ultimately, once the “D’Apres Leonardo” exhibit debuted on October 30, 2020, it was confirmed that the work hanging in Torino is simply a copy—a striking replica by artist Taner Ceylan.
As for where the most expensive painting ever sold is now—that remains the $450 million question only Prince Bader can answer.