Saudi prince is $450.3 mn Da Vinci art buyer at auction

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Prince Mohammed bin Salman. PTI file

A Saudi prince spent $450.3m on Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Jesus Christ at a NY auction last month and it will be exhibited at the new branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.

Crown 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.

Normally, news of a wealthy and powerful member of Saudi Arabia's royal family buying a piece of art would not raise any interest.

The Gulf has been the destination for a number of great art works in recent years, especially with the purchase power of countries like Qatar, which is home to a $300m museum for Islamic Art and has spent hundreds of millions on work by Mark Rothko, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin.

Prince Bader is part of the Farhan branch of the royal family, which traces its lineage to an 18th-century Saudi ruler, not to King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern-day kingdom. But the timing on this purchase was notable.

Less than two weeks before the auction for the painting took place, on Nov 15, Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the extrajudicial detention of at least 200 of the kingdom's richest businessmen, officials and princes in a Ritz-Carlton hotel. Christie's pressed him to establish both his identity and the source of his money.

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The Saudi crown prince is a close ally of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi.

The painting will be displayed at the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, the museum tweeted on Thursday, without giving a timeframe.

The choice of painting is also curious.

Painted in oil on a wooden board measuring 18 by 26 inches, "Salvator Mundi" shows its subject gazing dreamily at the viewer, his right hand raised in benediction, while his left clutches a crystal orb. Saudi Arabia adheres to a strict form of Islam which shuns visual portrayals of religious figures. The painting's authenticity is still widely questioned by many experts, while the issue of overpainting, restoration and conservation will always be an underlying issue.

A portrait of Christ said to be the work of Renaissance master Leonardo Da Vinci has sold for a record-breaking US$450 million at auction.

The work was auctioned by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought it in 2013 for US$127.5 million in a private sale that became the subject of a continuing lawsuit.

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