Too Long, Don't Have a Wall Street Journal Subscription(TL;DHWSJS):
- Then as now, debate has swirled around the authenticity of the painting. Mr. Delieuvin said at the time that he planned to include research, which his team had conducted while the painting was in Paris before the show, that suggested that the Louvre’s scholars supported the idea that Leonardo had painted the portrait of Christ. Those findings would have been included in the show’s catalog so long as the loan went through, giving the work an illustrious stamp of approval—something for which the Saudis had been hoping.
The painting was never shown. According to Saudi and French officials, the kingdom shipped the painting to France but later declined to lend it to the exhibit after Louvre curators refused to hang it next to the “Mona Lisa.” Leonardo’s masterpiece, which the museum considers immovable, hangs in a specially constructed room to accommodate huge crowds and high security.
“Both parties refused to budge,” said one Saudi official familiar with the stalemate. “For the kingdom, it was crucial to have it their way after the heat the crown prince got for paying almost half a billion dollars for a disputed painting.”
The official added, “I would not say that was a complete diplomatic standoff between the two countries, but the crown prince was offended by the French.”
Saudi government spokespeople didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A French official familiar with the dispute said the foreign ministry was worried the incident might have a big impact on France’s wide-ranging strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Some of the dispute might boil down to a misunderstanding of the clout the “Mona Lisa” possesses within the Louvre. Mr. Delieuvin, the curator who spent a decade gathering works for his Leonardo show, said he never even asked to borrow the famous portrait, which hangs one flight above and down a hallway from the galleries used for the Leonardo show. The museum said at the time that the “Mona Lisa” typically attracts up to 30,000 people a day—more than quadruple the crowds the Leonardo show was able to handle safely, museum administrators said.
Art in the Saudi kingdom tends to get displayed wherever its sovereigns dictate, so the idea that one painting couldn’t be shuffled to accommodate their wishes appears to have strained credulity.
Questions around the ultimate fate of “Salvator Mundi” within Saudi Arabia have also roiled the art world. The kingdom’s Ministry of Culture told The Wall Street Journal last year that it planned to build a new museum to display the work as part of a multibillion-dollar effort to make Saudi Arabia an international art destination.
The painting’s eventual debut there could prove delicate because the country’s cultural campaign hinges on highlighting its history as the center of Islam, not showcasing a European master’s portrait of Christ as a “Savior of the World,” the meaning of its Latin title.
“It’s an issue of perception. What does it say about Saudi identity if we put that painting on a poster?” Stefano Carboni, chief executive of the ministry’s Museums Commission, said last year.
Mr. Carboni said he hopes to display the Leonardo work in a museum for Western art that could be located next to another museum focused on Islamic art, the kingdom’s primary focus. Those museums haven’t yet been built.
MBS paid half a billion dollars to have a Da Vinci so Saudi Arabia could be a world player in culture matters. But the French, who were happy to take half a billion to license the name of the Louvre and most of a billion to rent out some of its art, weren't about to give MBS' Fauxvinci the stamp of approval. Meanwhile the Saudis, dictator be damned, aren't so cool with the heart of their artistic legacy being a forged Italian painting of Jesus.
So MBS hung it on his yacht.