The mystery whereabouts of the world’s most expensive painting

Salvator Mundi © Getty images
Salvator Mundi: the mystery deepens

A mystery that had been plaguing Salvator Mundi, the world’s most expensive painting, since it was sold at auction in 2017, may have been put to bed at the start of the week. Or it may not have. Not the all-important mystery about whether Leonardo da Vinci really did paint it, but the other one – where the hell is it?

Ever since Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), supposedly paid an astronomical $450.3m for it, nobody has known for sure where it was.

But on Monday, Artnet News’ Kenny Schachter announced to the world that he had found it. “You won’t believe where I’m told the painting is today”, he teased on Monday. “Apparently (according to his source), the work was whisked away in the middle of the night on MBS’s plane and relocated to his yacht, the Serene.”

Ahh, so it’s on a boat. But where’s the boat? “The yacht’s location as of May 26 was in the Red Sea off Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian resort town on the Sinai Peninsula, according to Bloomberg ship tracking data”, Katya Kazakina reported on Bloomberg. That same day, 26 May, The Guardian published an article stating that art historian Ben Lewis “is convinced that it is in high-security storage in a freeport in Switzerland”. Maybe it was, and maybe it still is.

In an article published today, Lewis tells The Daily Beast that he thinks Salvator is still in Switzerland. “The painting is very delicate”, says Lewis. “It is in five pieces carefully glued back together. One wrong move. One excessive temperature and cra-a-a-a-ack.” Moreover, he adds in his email, “I hate to think of the picture hanging on the wall of damp yacht”. But more to the point, does MBS?

The Serene cost $330m when it was owned by Russian vodka billionaire Yuri Scheffler, according to the Daily Mail in 2012. MBS saw the yacht tied up in the south of France and just had to have it, The New York Times said in 2016. So he dispatched his people to pay Scheffler a visit with €500m ($550m) – this is from Wikipedia, by the way. But it does raise the question – if MBS is prepared to pay $220m over the odds for a four-year-old boat, how much more over the odds would he pay for a painting of questionable provenance? And what does it say about the prince’s eye for art when the painting costs more than the original price of the Serene?

Not that any of it really matters, of course. But it is slightly ironic that we wouldn’t even be asking where Salvator is if it weren’t for the fact that the Louvre in Paris refused to hang the painting (according to Ben Lewis again) as part of its Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, marking 500 years since the painter’s death – at least not as an “autograph” work. The world-famous art institution wasn’t convinced it was by Leonardo at all.

Was Leonardo da Vinci any good as a painter? I ask this question in the new issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out on Friday. If you’re not already a subscriber, sign up now and get your first six issues free. Now that is good value, whatever MBS thinks.