The Missing Salvator Mundi Isn’t in the Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci Blockbuster. But a Second Version You’ve Probably Never Heard of Is

Curators remain hopeful the missing painting will turn up.

Installation view of the Ganay version of the Salvator Mundi, attributed to the studio of Leonardo. Photo by Naomi Rea.

The Louvre’s Leonardo da Vinci exhibition officially opens to the public today—and now, one of the biggest questions hovering over the show can be conclusively answered: Salvator Mundi is nowhere in sight. While curators were reticent to answer questions about the famous painting’s whereabouts even at early press previews this week, expressing hopes that it might still turn up in time for the public opening, it is now safe to say that the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction remains MIA.

The Louvre remains at the ready to welcome Salvator Mundi, even if it turns up mid-way through the exhibition’s run, curators say. The museum produced two catalogues for the show, one with and one without the painting. 

Salvator Mundi—which has captured the imagination of millions less for its spooky appearance and more for its price tag and international intrigue—was last seen in public at the tail end of 2017, when it sold at Christie’s in New York for a whopping $450.3 million.

Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi painting is seen at the Christie's in New York in 2017. Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi painting is seen at the Christie’s in New York in 2017. Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Even before it disappeared, the work was surrounded by controversy, with various art historians disagreeing about its attribution. Some credit the work—which surfaced in 2005 in an American estate sale—to Leonardo and some attribute it to his studio, while others believe it was completed by his disciples. (The exhibition’s curators say they will not make a public determination on Salvator Mundi‘s attribution unless the work is included in the show. The museum did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether the owner’s decision to loan the work was contingent on a full attribution to the artist.)

After the work was purchased in 2017 by a mysterious buyer rumored to be the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and gifted to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the intrigue deepened when it failed to appear as planned at the museum in September 2018. Since it went AWOL, conspiracy theories have abounded, with the latest tracing it to the yacht of bin Salman.

When I visited the Louvre exhibition on Tuesday, there was no sign of the contentious “last Leonardo.” People were, however, stopping to puzzle over a similar work, attributed by the Louvre to the studio of Leonardo da Vinci. This is Salvator Mundi’s lesser-known cousin, the so-called “de Ganay” version of the picture. (Previously, it was in the De Ganay collection in Paris.) It had formerly been attributed to Leonardo’s disciple Marco d’Oggiono, or, more controversially, to Leonardo himself by the art historian Joanne Snow-Smith, who wrote in a 1978 article that it was painted “between 1507 and 1513, when the artist was in the service of Louis XII.”

The painting is almost the same size as the missing one, and both are on walnut wood. Notable, however, is the more prominent wispy beard sported by the Christ figure in the de Ganay version. The Louvre places its date at 1505–15. In the exhibition, it is flanked by two of Leonardo’s red chalk studies for Salvator Mundi’s sleeves, dated 1500–6, which have been loaned to the exhibition from the UK’s Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. On the other side of the wall is an infrared reflectogram of the de Ganay work.

The elusive canvas was meant to be shown in the exhibition’s final room, on a wall across from the Ganay version, according to the Art Newspaper

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