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The Salvator Mundi puzzle and its mysterious whereabouts

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Leonardo Da Vinci's Salvator Mundi is the world's most expensive painting. Credit: Tolga Akmen / AFP / Getty Images
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The grand opening of the Louvre’s retrospective of Leonardo Da Vinci is approaching, but it has unfortunately already become clear that the exhibition will fall short of its full potential.

An Italian court initially blocked the loan of the famous “Vitruvian Man” drawing, arguing that it is too fragile to make the trek to Paris; a later court overruled the decision. More seriously, with less than two weeks to go until the exhibition kicks off, the Paris Louvre has still not secured the rights to the coveted Salvator Mundi.

The sight of the Salvator Mundi hanging in the Louvre alongside da Vinci’s other masterworks would have been an appropriately bombastic conclusion to the story of this painting – one that has captured the art world like no other. Acquired for a pitiful price at an estate sale, the representation of Christ blessing the world became the most expensive painting ever sold. The allure of betrayal and crime became intimately associated with the painting as it took centre stage in the highly publicized legal dispute between Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier and Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev that is shaking the art world to this day.

Rags to riches

For years the painting had hung in the house of Louisiana furniture dealer Warren Kuntz, who had purchased it in 1958 in the UK for £45 ($120). When Kuntz died in 2005, his estate sold the painting to a New Orleans auction house, where it was subsequently bought by New York-based art dealers Alexander Parrish and Robert Simon at an auction that year for $1000.

Extensive renovations of the painting revealed it to be a likely masterpiece of Da Vinci’s, the long thought lost Salvator Mundi. The story could have ended here, had it not been for the legal drama that has been unfolding around the painting’s sale by Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

Bouvier was allegedly introduced to Rybolovlev through a family friend – Tania Rappo, the wife of the Rybolovlevs’ dentist. At that time, Bouvier had inherited a family business – shipping company Natural le Coultre; he would go on to found freeports in Singapore and Luxembourg. Rappo had become an “all-around helper” for the Russian businessman and his wife, and frequently served as an interpreter between Rybolovlev and Bouvier, who did not speak Russian and whose English was likewise poor the Geneve Tribune reports.

Rybolovlev quickly came to rely on Bouvier, seeing the Swiss businessman as a trusted agent through which he could acquire valuable pieces of art. As a market insider, Bouvier was well-placed for the task, knowing what was stored where, who owned it and, consequently, how to obtain it. In exchange for his services, Rybolovlev agreed to pay Bouvier a 2 percent commission.

By the time Yves Bouvier laid his hands on the Salvator Mundi, it was already worth millions. In 2013, the art dealer and “freeport king” acquired the Da Vinci from Parrish and Simon in a private Sotheby’s-brokered sale for $83 million – only to flip it to Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million within 24 hours, making a stunning $44.5 million profit. One has to question how the painting’s value could have skyrocketed so significantly in such a short period of time.

Dmitry Rybolovlev takes action

As much as Rybolovlev loved the Salvator Mundi, he – according to a recent report in the Swiss media – did not initially want to pay more than $100 million for the piece. Bouvier pushed Rybolovlev to increase the maximum amount he was willing to spend. The Swiss dealer insisted that the sellers were not prepared to sell for under $100 million – at the very same time as he was negotiating with Simon and Parrish to acquire the painting himself for $83 million.

Rybolovlev first suspected that he might have been duped when a 2014 New York Times article reported that Bouvier had bought the da Vinci painting for around $80 million – rather than the nearly $130 million that Rybolovlev had believed. According to Swiss publication NZZ, Yves Bouvier was able to pull off such a deception in part because “Bouvier kept the names of all involved parties top secret”, allowing the Swiss dealer to negotiate a lower price before selling it to the Russian at great profit. The fact that Rybolovlev and Bouvier communicated through translators – often Tania Rappo, who regularly received substantial commissions from Bouvier Le Point reports — also increased the chances that Bouvier could keep his client in the dark about how much profit he had made off the painting.

Once the New York Times report sparked his suspicions that that trust had been betrayed, the billionaire launched lawsuits against Bouvier for fraud in several jurisdictions, including Monaco, Singapore and Switzerland. The dispute with Rybolovlev also attracted the attention of Swiss federal tax authorities to Yves Bouvier’s activities. As a result, the art dealer is being investigated for potentially owing some CHF 165 million in back taxes, and some of his assets have been frozen. “I have no more money”, Bouvier recently said while giving an interview to the Swiss outlet NZZ in the ultra luxurious Hotel Kempinski in Geneva.

Since Bouvier had bought 14 of the paintings he later sold on to Rybolovlev from Sotheby’s, the Russian also sued the auction house for $380 million in damages in a Manhattan federal court, arguing that the Swiss businessman had “masterminded” the scheme and that Sotheby’s had “materially assisted the largest art fraud in history.” In all, Rybolovlev accused Bouvier of having defrauded him out of an eye-watering $1 billion over the period of 10 years through the sale of 38 paintings.

Private correspondence between Bouvier and Sotheby’s staff, including senior director and vice-chairman for private sales Samuel Valette, subsequently showed that Bouvier sold the Salvator Mundi to Rybolovlev with a 54 percent mark-up. According to the same complaint, Samuel Valette was aware that Yves Bouvier was not the ultimate buyer, as he told the Da Vinci sellers that “the Russian” (i.e. Rybolovlev) wanted to pay less than $100 million.

Bouvier has responded to the revelations of how much he was overcharging Rybolovlev by claiming that he was “free to set his own prices” and disputed that such the 2 percent agreement existed.

Never to be seen again?

Dmitry Rybolovlev eventually sold the Salvator Mundi for $450 million in 2017, making the painting the most valuable artwork ever to be sold over an auction block. Since then, however, it has seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth, adding another layer of mystery to its dramatic history.

A month after the auction, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announced that the painting was in its possession and that it would be unveiled later that year. However, the event was abruptly cancelled. To this day, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has not provided an explanation and its officials assert to have no knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts.

Art world insiders have speculated that the painting is either on the yacht of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or in Geneva’s freeport, a storage site known for its high secrecy and the luxury items hidden away in its vaults. As the remaining days tick away before the Louvre’s big Leonardo exhibit, it looks increasingly less likely that the Salvator Mundi will take its rightful place among da Vinci’s masterworks.

The Brussels Times