The collective gasp was audible in Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza salesroom when Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for $450 million
in November 2017, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold. The auction house marketed the work aggressively as the “last da Vinci,” sending it on a multi-city tour, commissioning a dramatic video (showing the almost religious awe it inspired for viewers, including Leonardo DiCaprio), and creating special paddles for bidders to fuel the hype. The portrait of Jesus Christ, consigned to Christie’s by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, was surrounded by controversy even before its sale—in no small part due to debate over its attribution
to Leonardo. After the sale, the buyer’s identity became an equally complex issue. The bidder was first identified as a Saudi prince little known in the art world
, but it was soon discovered he was just a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The painting’s ultimate destination was later reported to be the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by way of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, but the Emirati museum subsequently called off the display
with no explanation. Since then, the elusive work’s location has remained unknown, despite rumors that it might make a late appearance in the Louvre
’s blockbuster Leonardo show. The sale not only marked a new extreme for the art market, but also encapsulated its frustratingly opaque nature.