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A clash of wills keeps a Leonardo masterpiece hidden.

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The Louvre was so eager to include “Salvator Mundi” in its anniversary exhibition that the curators planned to use an image of the painting for the front of its catalog,

When it opened, though, the most talked-about painting they had planned to show — “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive work ever sold at auction — was nowhere to be seen.

The chance to see it at the Louvre museum’s anniversary show two years later had created a sensation in the international art world, and its absence whipped up a storm of new questions. Had the Louvre concluded that the painting was not actually the work of Leonardo, as a vocal handful of scholars had insisted?

Had the buyer — reported to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although he had never acknowledged it — declined to include it in the show for fear of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion that the brash Saudi prince might have gambled a fortune on a fraud had already inspired a cottage industry of books, documentaries, art world gossip columns and even a proposed Broadway musical.

None of that was true. In fact, the crown prince had secretly shipped “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre more than a year earlier, in 2018, according to several French officials and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Times.

The report also states that the painting belongs to the Saudi Culture Ministry — something the Saudis have never acknowledged. A team of French scientists subjected the unframed canvas to a weekslong forensic examination with some of the most advanced technology available to the art world,

Yet the Saudis had withheld it nonetheless, for entirely different reasons: a disagreement over a Saudi demand that their painting of Jesus should hang next to “Mona Lisa,” several French officials said last week, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential. Far from a dispute about art scholarship, the withdrawal of the painting appears instead to have turned on questions of power and ego.

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