If an artwork – or anything, for that matter – sells for almost half a billon dollars, chances are you’re going to take good care of it.

So how could it come to be that Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which in November 2017 became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction for over $450 million, seems to have vanished without a trace?

‘No comment’ seems to be the unifying theme, but first let’s go back to the beginning.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ obliterated the world record of the most expensive work sold at auction when it achieved $450.3 million (£343.26 mil) at Christie’s New York in November 2017 Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ obliterated the world record of the most expensive work sold at auction when it achieved $450.3 million (£343.26 mil) at Christie’s New York in November 2017

Thought to have been painted around 1500, Salvator Mundi was one of two similar works listed in an inventory of the collection of Charles I of England after his execution in 1649. However, in the 18th century the work disappeared from historic record.

The work, or at least the one which sold at auction in 2017, turned up in the collection of a 19th-century British industrialist. According to Professor Martin Kemp, an Oxford art historian, the work had been so heavily painted over that “it looked like a drug-crazed hippie”. At the time it was attributed to one of da Vinci’s followers. In 1958, it was sold for the equivalent of $1,350 in today’s dollars.

The belief that the painting was by Leonardo da Vinci circulated after a pair of dealers spotted it at a New Orleans auction in 2005. They brought it to Professor Dianne Modestini of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who then stripped away overpainting, repaired damage and restored details. Modestini also changed the thumb: Jesus’s hands appeared to have two, most likely because the artist changed his mind about where the thumb should be and painted over the original thumb, which Modestini then covered. Some have argued that the painting was extensively restored by Modestini to the point that it became as much her work as da Vinci’s. Modestini says that’s “nonsense”.

The work was then exhibited in a retrospective of da Vinci’s work in 2011 at London’s National Gallery. Two years later, Russian billionaire Dmitry E Rybolovlev bought it for $127.5 million. Four years later, it achieved its whopping price tag of $450.3 million when it was auctioned by Christie’s in New York in November 2017.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the true purchaser of da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the true purchaser of da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’

Though the buyer was an anonymous bidder, it turned out to be Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, a close ally and thought to be a stand-in for Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prince Bader was a little-known member of a distant branch of the Saudi royal family. A few months after the auction, the royal court named Prince Bader the kingdom’s Minister of Culture – a first for Saudi Arabia.

It was later confirmed by American officials that, when purchasing the work, Prince Bader was indeed acting as a surrogate for Crown Prince Mohammed, who was the true owner of Salvator Mundi.

Crown Prince Mohammed’s aggression has recently come under scrutiny in the West. This is, according to the New York Times, after American intelligence agencies concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who was ambushed and dismembered by Saudi agents in the consulate in Istanbul.

When, in December 2017, a Times article about Prince Bader’s role in the auction was about to be published, the Louvre Abu Dhabi posted a timely tweet announcing that Salvator Mundi would be coming to its collection.

Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi

In June 2018, Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak – the Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism and a top lieutenant of Crown Prince Mohammed – announced that the work would go on display as part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection in September 2018. “Having spent so long undiscovered, this masterpiece is now our gift to the world… We look forward to welcoming people from near and far to witness is beauty,” Mubarak said in a statement reported by Emirati-owned newspaper, The National.

However, when September came the exhibition was cancelled without explanation. It wasn’t rescheduled either.

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Neither Mubarak nor the ministry would release a comment or statement. According to the New York Times, staff at the Louvre Abu Dhabi say, privately, that they have no knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts.

The Louvre in Paris, which licenses its name to the Abu Dhabi Louvre, also has not been able to locate Salvator Mundi.

Since then, one person familiar with the details of the painting’s sale said the artwork was sent to Europe after the completion of payment. Professor Modestini said she had heard for a restoration expert that he had been asked by an insurance company to examine the painting in Zurich towards the end of 2018 before further shipping. However, the examination was cancelled. The Zurich expert, Daniel Fabian, declined to comment.

No further leads have come forward.

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Cover image: Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press