LONDON — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, acting though a friend and distant cousin, was the true buyer behind the purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for a record-breaking $ 450.3 million, American officials and an Arab familiar with the arrangement said Thursday.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the purchase was executed in the name of Prince Bader bin Adbullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, and many familiar with the operations of the Saudi royal family presumed that Crown Prince Mohammed, a friend of Prince Bader’s, was funding the bid. The sale price more than doubled the previous record for an art sale at auction, $ 179.4 million for a Picasso.
Prince Bader, in a statement published Thursday in a Saudi newspaper owned by a company he leads, said he had “read with great surprise the report published about me in The New York Times newspaper and the strange and inaccurate information it contained.” His statement did not mention the painting or address whether he had bought it.
An official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Thursday.
Making a record-breaking art purchase in his own name might be awkward for the crown prince because he is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the elite of the kingdom — including some of his royal cousins.
Less than two weeks before the auction for the painting took place, on Nov. 15, Prince Mohammed ordered the extrajudicial detention of at least 200 of the kingdom’s richest businessmen, officials and princes in a Ritz Carlton hotel. He has been pressuring them to sign over hundreds of billions of dollars in assets in deals to avoid prosecution and secure their freedom.
Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” may also offend the sensibilities and violate the rules of the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom. The Renaissance-era painting is a reverential depiction of Jesus Christ, and Muslims believe that Jesus is not the savior but instead a prophet. Saudi clerics also teach that Islam prohibits any work of art representing a human being, and that the depiction of any of the prophets is especially forbidden.
Prince Bader, the named buyer, has no publicly known source of wealth that would enable him to make such an expensive purchase. Nor does he have any publicly known history as a major art collector.
But Prince Bader is a longtime friend of the crown prince, and he appears to have acted as an agent for him on at least one previous occasion, in the commission of an elaborate resort complex for a half-dozen princes in Prince Mohammed’s immediate family.
Prince Mohammed also put Prince Bader in charge of a Saudi media company that has traditionally been controlled by the Salman branch of the royal family. And this year, the crown prince’s father, King Salman, named Prince Bader to run a commission to develop the area around an archaeological site under a plan by the crown prince, who is chairman of the commission.
Christie’s, the auction house that handled the sale, did not disclose the name of the buyer of “Salvator Mundi,” but documents related to the sale that were reviewed by The Times identified the purchaser as Prince Bader. While The Times was awaiting comment from Prince Bader or the Saudi Embassy in Washington on Wednesday, the newly opened branch of the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, announced that it expected to receive the painting.
The Louvre has not disclosed whether it will receive the painting as a gift, a loan or a rental. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, is a close ally of the Saudi crown prince.