LONDON — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, acting though a friend and distant cousin, was the true buyer behind the purchase of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for a record-breaking $450.3 million, American officials and an Arab familiar with the arrangement said Thursday.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the purchase was executed in the name of Prince Bader bin Adbullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, and many familiar with the operations of the Saudi royal family presumed that Crown Prince Mohammed, a friend of Prince Bader’s, was funding the bid. The sale price more than doubled the previous record for an art sale at auction, $179.4 million for a Picasso.
Prince Bader, in a statement published Thursday in a Saudi newspaper owned by a company he leads, said he had “read with great surprise the report published about me in The New York Times newspaper and the strange and inaccurate information it contained.” His statement did not mention the painting or address whether he had bought it.
An official at the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Thursday.
Making a record-breaking art purchase in his own name might be awkward for the crown prince because he is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the elite of the kingdom — including some of his royal cousins.
Less than two weeks before the auction for the painting took place, on Nov. 15, Prince Mohammed ordered the extrajudicial detention of at least 200 of the kingdom’s richest businessmen, officials and princes in a Ritz Carlton hotel. He has been pressuring them to sign over hundreds of billions of dollars in assets in deals to avoid prosecution and secure their freedom.
Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” may also offend the sensibilities and violate the rules of the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom. The Renaissance-era painting is a reverential depiction of Jesus Christ, and Muslims believe that Jesus is not the savior but instead a prophet. Saudi clerics also teach that Islam prohibits any work of art representing a human being, and that the depiction of any of the prophets is especially forbidden.