A vanished and virtually unknown work, yet history’s most expensive, was won at an auction for a record price of $450.3 million. It is a staggering, barely even imaginable sum. The work is "Salvator Mundi," Leonardo da Vinci’s painting that went on auction in November 2017 for $120 million. At Christie’s auction in New York on Nov. 16, 2017, it was finally sold for the amount quoted above. The hunt for the new owner immediately ensues: The New York Times identified him as Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud. The surname leaves no room for doubt. He is a member of the Saudi royal family, one of the princes closest to Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. But today nobody in Riyadh knows where the painting is.

Suspicions about Such a Large Amount of Money

The work would actually not be worth that whole amount. There are two related problems here: On one hand, the work’s authorship has still not been ascertained. On the other hand, this painting that is so admired and expensive is almost a fabrication of history in the sense that the restoration work done over the years makes it totally different from the original. In other words, the canvas that was painted on directly by Leonardo no longer exists. Therefore, a quote starting from such a high price arouses more than a little confusion. Its subsequent arrival at a record sale price of $450 million arouses outright suspicion. While the buyer was discovered shortly afterward to be the young scion and friend of the Saudi prince, the person who continually raised his bid while allowing the price to inflate to that level was discovered right after that. The Daily Mail revealed his name: Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Two family lineages, one from Saudi Arabia and the other from the United Arab Emirates, which are not exactly rivals.

It is extremely difficult to imagine that a skirmish for art merchandise with intense and continuous outbidding would start between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The two governments are allies on the Arabian Peninsula and share common goals and policies. Furthermore, the two princes have a personal friendship. The concern is therefore that the buyer and second-highest bidder are in collusion with each other. Evidently it is useful to inflate the price of such a work. The question is why.

Journalistic Investigation by an Israeli Blog

The Israeli TV producer Zev Shalev and journalist Tracie McElroy attempted to answer the question. Their report was published on Shalev’s blog, Narativ. A key part of their reconstruction is related to a meeting held at Trump Tower in June 2016. Donald Trump was preparing to become the Republican candidate for the White House. His election campaign was on the rise. On that occasion, three people were sitting in a room in the tycoon’s skyscraper: an Israeli expert on social media manipulation, an emissary of Crown Prince Mohammed and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and a Republican financial supporter. Obviously, the meeting was with Trump himself. Shalev and McElroy discovered the participants’ names: The Israeli expert is Joel Zamel, founder of Psy Group, and the Republican donor is Erik Prince, founder of the private military contractor Blackwater. During the meeting, the Saudi and Emirati princes’ intention to support Trump emerged, and they would do it by having the election campaign be run by Psy Group, which deals with managing news to circulate on social networks.

Psy Group would then work to supply data to Cambridge Analytica, the company that later ended up in the eye of the storm regarding the data of many Facebook users. Remember that Cambridge Analytica, whose founder is also one of the owners of Breitbart News (then directed by Steve Bannon), was an information technology partner of Trump’s campaign committee. But as Alessandro Massone highlighted in an article in The Submarine, Cambridge Analytica does not have its own production chain. Therefore, dissemination of news on the electoral campaign had to be done by Psy Group. The Israeli company’s work was apparently free, as reported on Narativ. It seems clear, however, that its support must be paid for. This is where the auction of "Salvator Mundi" comes into play.

The painting was sold by Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch famous in Europe for owning most of the shares of the Monaco football club. Rybolovlev originally acquired the work for $126 million in 2013, but he sued those who sold it to him when he discovered that the painting was worth much less. And here is another ambiguity: How is it possible that a work judged to be overestimated after a few years is then sold at practically triple the price? Rybolovlev is a name that emerges in the notorious “Russiagate,” Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged (and currently unproven) interference by the Kremlin in the 2016 U.S. elections. This is because the Russian oligarch would find himself with the Trump electoral committee on at least two occasions, even if there is no evidence of a personal meeting with the future U.S. president. Surely there is evidence that Rybolovlev bought one of his villas in Florida from Trump for $95 million in 2008, another sign that the two know each other. Actually, Narativ only touches upon “Russiagate.” According to its two authors, what they are trying to emphasize is that a painting sold by an acquaintance of Trump was placed for auction at a very inflated price that Saud and Nayef seemed to agree on.

And that figure served to hide the Saudis' payment to the Psy Group. Another clue that the two authors of the Narativ investigation consider "decisive" in supporting this thesis is that the accounts of Psy Group at that time were deposited by the Bank of Cyprus. Rybolovlev owns considerable shares in that bank. So the situation is as follows: A work was sold by a Russian oligarch who knows Trump for a sum disproportionate to its value. The buyer was a Saudi prince. The one who increased the bid prices was part of the Abu Dhabi family. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi sent emissaries in June 2016 to a meeting in which the founder of Psy Group also participated, expressing their willingness to support Trump. A few months later, the purchase of the work is “guided" by the Saudis and Emiratis and the seller owns shares in the bank where the accounts of Psy Group are deposited. According to the authors of Narativ, it’s a plot that, even if it lacks a few elements, still shows a certain sketchiness around the matter of "Salvator Mundi." And today, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, virtually nothing is known about that painting. It’s another mystery that confirms the hypothesis of an auction aimed at disguising massive transfers of money.