The moment that normally unflappable Christie’s auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen slammed down his gavel on the Salvator Mundi, hammering the last available painting by Leonardo da Vinci for an earth-shattering record $450.3 million, a new parlor game instantly gripped the international art world: Who the heck could have bought the thing? Now, according to a spellbinding New York Times investigation, we allegedly know the answer, and it’s unexpected for a whole slew of reasons. Does the name Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud ring a bell?
A Saudi royal with a relatively low public profile, Prince Bader is reportedly an intimate of the currently ascendant ruler of Saudi Arabia, the reform-minded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and he’s known primarily for working on massive real-estate undertakings in the kingdom. Now, according to the Times, who says he was the winning bidder in the November 15th sale, the prince has evidently shifted his attention to very expensive décor.
In the hours before the scoop was published, the Louvre Abu Dhabi tweeted that the Leonardo painting is going to make a stop over there when it’s in the neighborhood. And it’s no coincidence. As the Times reports, Prince Bader’s close ally, the Saudi crown prince, is a close friend of the Abu Dhabi crown prince.
Here, below, are five reasons why the news about the buyer is so surprising.
1. It’s Kind of a Weird Choice
Despite Prince Mohammed’s drive to inculcate a “more moderate Islam” in Saudi Arabia, much of the Sunni country remains under the sway of the notoriously strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which not only observes the precept of aniconism—the proscription against graven images—but also preaches that such images should be destroyed. Even more sacrilegious, of course, is a depiction of any of the prophets in the Quran. Considering that Jesus is considered a Muslim prophet and precursor to Mohammed, a painting of him would certainly be seen as unholy. Throw into the mix that many view Leonardo da Vinci as the greatest artist of all time, making his portrait of Jesus the most graven image in that genre.
2. It’s Not Really the Best Timing
The revelation of the buyer puts Salvator Mundi at the heart of a radical transformation currently underway in Saudi Arabia. In the days before the sale, the Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the arrest of more than 10 princes, as well as a number of high-profile businessmen, intellectuals, government officials, and clerics. The Times described the “midnight blitz of arrests” as “the most sweeping transformation in the kingdom’s governance for more than eight decades.” Framed as a reformer’s crackdown on corruption, the move was made without any formal charges or due process.
Yet the revelation that Prince Bader bought the record-setting Leonardo makes plain that some members of the country’s elite still felt comfortable spending profligately. As the Times put it: “The $450.3 million purchase is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown.” This is one auction purchase that definitely has political ramifications beyond the salesroom.
3. Christie’s Didn’t Even Know the Guy
According to the Times, Prince Bader did not register as a potential bidder for the painting until the day before the sale. That left officials at Christie’s scrambling to conduct the appropriate due diligence to confirm his identity and make sure he could actually afford to buy it. After Prince Bader put down a $100 million deposit, the Times reported, Christie’s lawyers were still trying to confirm exactly where he got the money and the nature of his relationship to the King of Saudi Arabia. According to the Times, he told Christie’s executives that his wealth was from “real estate” and that he was “just one of 5,000 princes” in the country.
Christie’s declined to comment on the Times story. A spokeswoman told artnet News: “As a matter of policy, Christie’s does not comment on the identity of any buyers or sellers unless instructed.”
4. Nothing He’s Done Has Had to Do With Art
From what we know about Prince Bader at the moment, he has been involved with a number of ambitious projects in his kingdom, but none have had to do with art. According to the Times, Prince Bader has since this summer been working with Prince Mohammed on a project to develop the Ala Ola province—which contains “an archaeological site that the crown prince hopes to turn into a tourist destination”—and the two have previously collaborated on planning a seven-palace pleasure enclave for their royal families.
In terms of projects Prince Bader has helmed on his own, one stands out: as the head of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, he recently partnered with Michael Bloomberg to launch a 24-hour “multi-platform Arabic-language business and financial news service” called Bloomberg Al-Arabiya.
5. He Got to Pay for His Purchase in Installments
According to the Times, the prince arranged to pay for his purchase in installments over six months, with the last installment of $58,385,416.65 due on May 14. Given that the final price was a half billion dollars, perhaps that is not so surprising.
What is surprising, however, is that he originally told Christie’s that he wanted to pay for his new Leonardo “in one lump sum,” the Times reports—but then thought better of it.
So, to Sum Up…
Here is what we know. Prince Bader is, per the above, an unexpected buyer for the Salvator Mundi. We also know that he has worked closely in a subordinate capacity for Prince Mohammed, who for all intents and purposes currently rules Saudi Arabia; is keen on cultural development (like the archeological site); is pushing to modernize Saudi Islam; is friends with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, where the Leonardo, per the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s strangely timely Tweet today, is headed; and is aggressively scrutinizing lavish royal expenditures within his kingdom. Is it possible that Prince Bader was simply buying the painting on Prince Mohammed’s behalf?
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