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Saudi crown prince pressed France to lie about fake painting to escape humiliation: Documentary

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The “Salvator Mundi”, a work attributed to the master of the Renaissance Leonardo da Vinci, was sold to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for a record 450 million dollars at Christie’s auction in New York in 2017.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) pressured authorities in France to lie about the authenticity of a fake painting he had purchased in 2017, a French documentary has revealed.

The Saudi crown prince did so to escape the public humiliation of having spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the painting credited to Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The painting was titled Salvator Mundi (The Savior of the World) and it was a portrait of Jesus Christ, nicknamed the "male Mona Lisa", that was sold to bin Salman for a record 450 million dollars at Christie’s auction in New York in 2017.

French filmmaker Antoine Vitkine has revealed in his documentary "The Savior for Sale" — to be premiered on French TV next week — that the painting was not entirely the work of da Vinci.

The issue made headlines when the painting failed to appear as planned at the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum in 2018, and then at a blockbuster da Vinci show by the Louvre in Paris the following year.

“The scientific evidence was that Leonardo da Vinci only made a contribution to the painting. There was no doubt,” says a senior French government official who goes by the code name Jacques in the film.

The official said the Louvre had informed the painting’s owner, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, of its findings, but he balked.

“MBS laid down very clear conditions— show the Salvator Mundi beside the Mona Lisa without any other explanation, present it as 100 percent Leonardo da Vinci,” Jacques said.

The official also said the Saudis had offered various deals but the crown prince’s recommendation to the Elysee amounted to "laundering a $450 million artwork.”

“At stake was our credibility, the credibility of France, of the Louvre,” Jacques said. “My position, which I communicated to the highest level, was that the Saudis’ conditions were unreasonable and that exhibiting it on their terms would have been laundering a work at $450 million.”

The documentary showed that some members of the French government, including Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, had lobbied on behalf of bin Salman's request as they had been concerned about the impact on France's wide-ranging strategic and economic relationship with Riyadh.

French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly decided not to acquiesce to the Saudi demands.

"The Saudis are afraid of this debate on the authenticity," says Chris Dercon, who heads one of France's top museum bodies and advises the Saudi government on art, in the documentary.

"They are afraid that people will say, both at home and abroad, 'You spent all this money for something that is not a da Vinci.'"

The Salvator Mundi, the world's most expensive painting, was initially bought in 2005 for just $1,175 by a New York art dealer and restored in the United States.

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