It is fitting that the tortuous journey of Leonardo da Vinci's lost painting should culminate here
The unveiling of Salvator Mundi confirms the UAE's position as a major global centre of art and culture
Come September, Abu Dhabi will make history by becoming the first permanent home, outside of Europe and the United States, to a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Salvator Mundi will go on public display at Louvre Abu Dhabi on September 18. If Salvator Mundi’s acquisition by the Department of Culture and Tourism last year for a record sum, which transformed the global art market, conveyed the UAE’s determination to lead the cultural renaissance of this region, its unveiling at Louvre Abu Dhabi will confirm the UAE’s position as one of the world’s principal capitals of art and culture.
With this painting, Louvre Abu Dhabi, already a world-class museum, will draw the world to it. In October 2019, the painting will travel to France as a loan to Louvre Paris for its planned exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death. This exchange will emphasise the special relationship the UAE has forged with France. It will also, in a stroke, reverse the trend of the east borrowing works of art from the west. The arrival of Salvator Mundi will, needless to say, hugely boost the economy. But more than that, it will affirm the message underlying Louvre Abu Dhabi: a commitment to openness and a belief in civilisational flows that transcend manmade boundaries. Salvator Mundi is a reverential depiction of Christ as “Saviour of the World”. Its exhibition in Abu Dhabi amplifies the UAE’s foundational values of tolerance and inclusiveness.
Painted around 1500, a short while after da Vinci created his masterwork The Last Supper, Salvator Mundi’s journey to these shores has been truly extraordinary. It was lost for years, before being rediscovered, in an extremely poor condition, and purchased for less than $10,000 by the art dealer Alexander Parish at an auction in Lousiana. Experts questioned the authenticity of the piece, which was put through extensive restoration work, but once it was established as one of the few surviving works by da Vinci, it became history’s most coveted “sleeper” – a work of art that goes from being unnoticed and forgotten to an object of frenzied bidding.
It changed hands for tens of millions of dollars. When it went up for auction last year in New York, Christie’s put an estimate of $100 million on it. The UAE secured it for $450m – the highest price ever paid for an artwork at an auction. The quiet resolve that characterised the UAE's bid was an apt tribute to da Vinci, a polyhistor who in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and in his inventiveness embodied a commitment to self-actualisation that corresponds with this country's own vision. It is fitting that the tortuous travels of Salvator Mundi through history should culminate here.