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December 3 2021 3:39 AM ˚
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Clash of wills keeps Leonardo artwork hidden

PAINTING MYSTERY 2 (4)
The Louvre in Paris, December 4, 2020. The Louvre inspected the “Salvator Mundi” and certified it as the work of Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo: NYTimes)
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French curators had worked for a decade to prepare a major exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. When it opened, though, the most talked-about painting they had planned to show — “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive work ever sold at auction — was nowhere to be seen.اضافة اعلان

Plucked from shabby obscurity at a New Orleans estate sale, the painting had been sold in 2017 as a rediscovered “lost” Leonardo and fetched more than $450 million from an anonymous bidder who kept it hidden from view. The chance to see it at the Louvre museum’s anniversary show two years later had created a sensation in the international art world, and its absence whipped up a storm of new questions.

Had the Louvre concluded that the painting was not actually the work of Leonardo, as a vocal handful of scholars had insisted? Had the buyer — reported to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although he had never acknowledged it — declined to include it in the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion that the brash Saudi prince might have gambled a fortune on a fraud had already inspired a cottage industry of books, documentaries, art world gossip columns, and even a proposed Broadway musical.

None of that was true.

In fact, the crown prince had secretly shipped “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre more than a year earlier, in 2018, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Times. The report also states that the painting belongs to the Saudi Culture Ministry — something the Saudis have never acknowledged.

A team of French scientists subjected the unframed canvas to a weekslong forensic examination with some of the most advanced technology available to the art world, and in their undisclosed report they had pronounced, with more authority than any previous assessment, that the painting appeared to be the work of Leonardo’s own hand.

Yet the Saudis had withheld it nonetheless, for entirely different reasons: a disagreement over a Saudi demand that their painting of Jesus should hang next to “Mona Lisa,” several French officials said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.

Far from a dispute about art scholarship, the withdrawal of the painting appears instead to have turned on questions of power and ego.

Dismissing those demands as irrational and unworkable, the French, in turn, refused to make public their own positive assessment of its authenticity.

And the resulting diplomatic standoff between the French and the Saudis has kept the painting out of sight as the cloud of intrigue around it continues to swell.

The Louvre curators had secretly prepared a glossy, magazine-style 46-page summary of the conclusions of their forensic examination of the painting. Its existence was first reported in March 2020 by Alison Cole of The Art Newspaper. Scanned copies of the confidential report became prized possessions among prominent Leonardo experts across the world, and The Times obtained multiple copies.

Experts at the Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, an independent culture ministry institute, used fluorescent X-rays, infrared scans and digital cameras aimed through high-powered microscopes to match signature details of the materials and artistic techniques in “Salvator Mundi” with the Louvre’s other Leonardo masterpieces.

Traces of hidden painting under the visible layers, details in the locks of Christ’s hair, and the shade of bright vermilion used in the shadows all pointed to the hand of Leonardo, the report concluded.
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