Saudi buyer of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi has royal cash link

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Leonardo da Vinci's"Salvator Mundi sold for $450.3 million last month

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, acting through a friend and distant cousin, was the true buyer behind the purchase of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" for a record-breaking US$450.3 million (S$608.94 million), USA officials and an Arab familiar with the arrangement said on Thursday (Dec 7).

The New York Times reported that it was bought by Saudi prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. However, it is now believed that he only acted as a proxy for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

He 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. The prince will not be keeping the art at home.

Prince Bader only presented himself as a bidder on the painting at the very last minute, which, according to the Times, caused a scramble at Christie's to establish his identity and financial means-even after he put down a $100-million deposit. But the timing on this purchase was notable.

The latter detail, however, was in fact far from reassuring: Saudi Arabia's many princes have caused quite a stir in the news lately, as last month the country's government detained more than 200 people in a crackdown on corruption and embezzled funds amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, which included singling out many of its most prominent princes.

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A spokeswoman for Christie's would not comment on the identity of the buyer, but did confirm the painting would be displayed at the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, a branch of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The Saudi crown prince is a close ally of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi.

On Wednesday, the museum announced on Twitter in Arabic, English and French that the art work was heading to the Louvre in Abu Dhabi. They turned it down, and did not bid on it this time around. Salvator Mundi portrays Jesus holding an orb in his left hand while raising his right. The painting's authenticity is still widely questioned by many experts, while the issue of overpainting, restoration and conservation will always be an underlying issue.

The work depicts Jesus Christ as a Renaissance man dressed in blue robes.

The previous owner of Salvator Mundi was a Russian businessman, Dmitry Rybolovlev, who purchased it for $127 million in 2013.

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