Ever since someone paid a staggering, and record, $450 million for Leonardo Da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" at a Christie's auction in November, the entire world has wanted to know just one thing: the identity of the buyer. To that end, we got a big clue this afternoon when Bloomberg reported that the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the recipient of the record-breaking Da Vinci painting.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, as Bloomberg notes, is a "franchise" of the Paris original and represents yet another symbol of the oil-rich sheikhdom's drive to boost its "soft power" credentials (even if it achieves precisely the opposite). To differentiate itself from neighboring Dubai, the Abu Dhabi brand of "west world" targets affluent tourists looking for culture and art and it has also built hotels, theme parks and malls. And it has decided that by having the most, most, most expensive painting in the world, it will be taken really seriously as a cultural icon (it won't).
The Da Vinci was supposed to represent the pinnacle of achievement - because clearly most expensive is best - for the organization behind the museum, which became one of the most aggressive buyers on the global art market over the last decade. It opened last month with more than 600 artworks for its permanent collection, including such Old Master paintings as Giovanni Bellini's "Madonna and Child." Da Vinci's "La Belle Ferronnière" is on loan there from the Louvre in Paris.
The museum's opening has also coincided with a period of heightened political tension in the Gulf and the broader Middle East. As one of the seven sheikhdoms in the United Arab Emirates, and the one with the largest oil reserves, Abu Dhabi is entwined in a Saudi Arabian-led dispute with neighboring Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism.
Vain virtue, or rather artue signaling aside, the location of the painting was also a clear enough clue to the identity of the heretofore secret buyer, and his identity was unveiled also this afternoon, when the NYT reported that the buyer "is a little-known Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth. But the prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, is the mystery buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Salvator Mundi," which fetched a record $450.3 million at auction last month, documents show."
There are several oddities about this purchase, the first of which is the timing of this glaring and ostentatious display of obscene wealth: Bader splurged on this controversial "and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ" at a time when most members of the Saudi elite, including some in the royal family, are cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.
The purchase becomes less odd following the NYT's revelation that Prince Bader is a friend and associate of the leader of the purge: the country's 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
In other words, those who are in the circle of trust, or at least friends, don't have to worry about a corruption crackdown, even if the stench thereof is overpowering; everyone else however, should prepare for an extended stay at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton where you can check out any time you like... with about 10% of your net worth. And strangely enough, the NYT, which has rarely if ever criticized the Royal family (see ""Groveling In Excrement": Thomas Friedman Mercilessly Mocked For Bizarre Saudi Puff Piece") sees things in the very same way:
The $450.3 million purchase is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown. The crown prince's supporters portray him as a reformer, but the campaign of extrajudicial arrests has been unprecedented for modern Saudi Arabia, worrying Western governments about political stability in the world's largest oil producer, alarming rights advocates and investors about the rule of law, and roiling energy markets.
Oops, the NYT may be asked soon to retract that particular piece of non-fake news.
In any case, even for an extremely wealthy, although completely unknown someone like Bader to buy a half a billion dollar painting, turned out to be a challenge:
Documents provided from inside Saudi Arabia and reviewed by The Times reveal that representatives for the buyer, Prince Bader, did not present him as a bidder until the day before the sale. He was such an unknown figure that executives at Christie's were scrambling to establish his identity and his financial means.
Yet even after he had provided a $100 million deposit to qualify for the auction, the Christie's lawyers conducting due diligence on potential bidders pressed him with two pointed questions:
Where did he get the money? And what was his relationship with the Saudi ruler, King Salman? "Real estate," Prince Bader replied, without elaborating... well at least it wasn't bitcoin. He also said the he was just one of 5,000 princes, according to documents and people involved.
The real estate may be worth much less, however, if Bader's countrymen feel like burning it down. The reason: for Prince Bader, paying such an unprecedented sum for a painting of Christ also risks offending the religious sensibilities of his Muslim countrymen. Muslims teach that Jesus was not the savior but a prophet. And most Muslims - especially the clerics of Saudi Arabia - consider the artistic depiction of any of the prophets to be a form of sacrilege.
Some more on his background:
Prince Bader comes from a lesser branch of the royal family, the Farhan, who are descended from a brother of an 18th-century Saudi ruler. They do not trace their lineage to the founder of the modern kingdom, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. But Prince Bader is a contemporary of Prince Mohammed. They attended King Saud University in Riyadh around the same time, if not together. And after King Salman, now 81, took the throne in 2015 and appointed Prince Mohammed to run much of the government, he named Prince Bader to high-profile positions, including one closely linked to the family.
In July, King Salman also named Prince Bader governor of a newly formed commission, led by Prince Mohammed, to develop the province of Al Ola, which contains an archaeological site that the crown prince hopes to turn into a tourist destination.
Prince Bader sat on the board of an energy company that did business in Saudi Arabia, Energy Holdings International, according to its website, and a short biography there describes him as "one of Saudi Arabia's youngest entrepreneurs." (It was not immediately clear if the company is still operating.)
According to the biography, he is also "chairman of the founding committee" of a local consortium that won a license from the kingdom to build a fiber-optic network, in a "strategic partnership" with Verizon. It is common for well-connected Saudi princes to profit by providing entry to the kingdom for international companies.
He is also described as one of the founders of a large recycling and waste-management business in Saudi Arabia. As for real estate, which Prince Bader described to Christie's as the source of his money, the biography says he "has also been active in real estate projects in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and the rest of the Middle East over five years," including in partnership with "large reputed companies." The date of the biography could not be determined.
Furthermore, Prince Bader appears to have worked with Prince Mohammed on at least one grand project for his own leisure, as well. Together, the two approached Brent Thompson Architects, a firm based in Los Angeles, to design an elaborate resort complex near Jidda, according to a description of the project on the group's website. It consisted of as many as seven palaces for princes in the Salman branch of the family, around an artificial body of water in the shape of a flower. "Petals of this tropical flower formed a series of private coves, each the home of an individual palace, its own private beaches, guesthouse, gardens and water sports facilities," according to the description on the firm's website.
And yet despite his obvious wealth, close family connections, and ostentatious style, the final purchase price of the Leonardo painting proved too much even for this royal:
The prince had told Christie's that he intended to pay in one lump sum upon completion of the sale. But in light of the unexpectedly high sale price, a contract was drawn up specifying six monthly installments. Five are for $58,385,416.67.
The last installment is due on May 14. It is 2 cents less: $58,385,416.65.
It is unclear how Christie's plan on repoing the world's most valuable painting from the "most cultured country" in the middle-east, if for some reason the Prince decides not to make one or more monthly scheduled payments...