French curators had labored for a decade to arrange a serious exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. When it opened, although, probably the most talked-about portray that they had deliberate to point out — “Salvator Mundi,” the costliest work ever bought at public sale — was nowhere to be seen.

Plucked from shabby obscurity at a New Orleans property sale, the portray had been bought in 2017 as a rediscovered “misplaced” Leonardo and fetched greater than $450 million from an nameless bidder who stored it hidden from view. The prospect to see it on the Louvre museum’s anniversary present two years later had created a sensation within the worldwide artwork world, and its absence whipped up a storm of latest questions.

Had the Louvre concluded that the portray was not really the work of Leonardo, as a vocal handful of students had insisted? Had the customer — reported to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although he had by no means acknowledged it — declined to incorporate it within the present for concern of public scrutiny? The tantalizing notion that the brash Saudi prince may need gambled a fortune on a fraud had already impressed a cottage business of books, documentaries, artwork world gossip columns, and even a proposed Broadway musical.

None of that was true.

The truth is, the crown prince had secretly shipped the “Salvator Mundi” to the Louvre greater than a yr earlier, in 2018, based on a number of French officers and a confidential French report on its authenticity that was obtained by The New York Occasions. The report additionally states that the portray belongs to the Saudi Tradition Ministry — one thing the Saudis have by no means acknowledged.

A workforce of French scientists subjected the unframed canvas to a weekslong forensic examination with a few of the most superior know-how obtainable to the artwork world, and of their undisclosed report that they had pronounced with extra authority than any earlier evaluation that the portray seemed to be the work of Leonardo’s personal hand.

But the Saudis had withheld it nonetheless, for completely totally different causes: a disagreement over a Saudi demand that their portray of Jesus ought to dangle subsequent to the “Mona Lisa,” a number of French officers stated final week, talking on situation of anonymity as a result of the talks had been confidential.

Removed from a dispute about artwork scholarship, the withdrawal of the portray seems as a substitute to have turned on questions of energy and ego.

Some artwork world skeptics say they believe the Saudis had been by no means critical about together with the portray within the French present, and had wished to maintain the work beneath wraps to extend the business potential of putting in it later at a deliberate tourism website within the kingdom. Present and former French officers, although, say that the Saudis had been keen for his or her newly acquired trophy to hold on the Louvre, so long as it was positioned beside the world’s most well-known portray.

Dismissing these calls for as irrational and unworkable, the French, in flip, refused to make public their very own constructive evaluation of its authenticity until the Saudis let the “Salvator Mundi” be included within the exhibition within the Louvre, which the French authorities oversees.

And the ensuing diplomatic standoff between the French and the Saudis has stored the portray out of sight because the cloud of intrigue round it continues to swell.

“Frankly, I feel all that taradiddle would have evaporated,” stated Luke Syson, the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, a curator who oversaw a 2011 Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London that included the “Salvator Mundi.”

If solely the portray had been displayed, he defined, “individuals might resolve for themselves by experiencing the image.”

Believed to have been painted round 1500, “Salvator Mundi” was considered one of two comparable works listed in a list of the gathering of King Charles I of England after his execution in 1649. However the historic file of its possession ends within the late 18th century.

Then, round 2005, a pair of New York artwork sellers looking a New Orleans property sale noticed a badly restored and partially painted over picture that they suspected is likely to be price a more in-depth look. They acquired it for lower than $10,000 and introduced it to a talented specialist to take away the later paint layers and restore the unique.

It modified palms few occasions since then, and hung as a Leonardo within the 2011 exhibition on the Nationwide Gallery in London. Nevertheless it was the record-setting bid in 2017 — for $450 million — that turned the “Salvator Mundi” into the stuff of front-page headlines, particularly after The New York Occasions reported that the anonymous buyer was a surrogate for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Now the controversy has made headlines once more with the discharge of a brand new French documentary this previous week claiming that the Louvre had concluded that Leonardo had “merely contributed” to the “Salvator Mundi.” Set to air on French tv on Tuesday, the documentary options two disguised figures, recognized as French authorities officers, asserting that Crown Prince Mohammed wouldn’t mortgage the portray to the anniversary exhibition as a result of the Louvre refused to attribute the work totally to Leonardo.

In a phone interview, the documentary’s director, Antoine Vitkine, stated he stood by its claims, saying the president of the Louvre had refused to touch upon the museum’s judgment of the “Salvator Mundi.”

The Louvre had insisted that the report on the portray’s authenticity “didn’t exist,” Mr. Viktine stated.

Regardless of their denials, the Louvre curators had secretly ready a shiny, magazine-style 46-page abstract of the conclusions of their forensic examination of the portray. Its existence was first reported in March 2020 by Alison Cole of The Art Newspaper. Scanned copies of the confidential report grew to become prized possessions amongst distinguished Leonardo specialists internationally, and The New York Occasions obtained a number of copies.

Consultants on the Heart for Analysis and Restoration of the Museums of France, an impartial tradition ministry institute, used fluorescent X-rays, infrared scans and digital cameras aimed by high-powered microscopes to match signature particulars of the supplies and creative methods within the “Salvator Mundi” with the Louvre’s different Leonardo masterpieces.

The skinny plank of wooden on which the “Salvator Mundi” was painted was the identical sort of walnut from Lombardy that Leonardo utilized in different works. The artist had combined effective powdered glass within the paint, as Leonardo did in his later years.

Traces of hidden portray beneath the seen layers, particulars within the locks of Christ’s hair, and the shade of vivid vermilion used within the shadows all pointed to the hand of Leonardo, the report concluded.

“All these arguments are inclined to favor the concept of a completely ‘autographed’ work,” Vincent Delieuvin, considered one of two curators of the anniversary exhibition, wrote in a prolonged essay describing the examination, noting that the portray had been “sadly broken by unhealthy conservation” and by “outdated, unquestionably too brutal restorations.”

Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre president, was much more definitive. “The outcomes of the historic and scientific examine offered on this publication permit us to verify the attribution of the work to Leonardo da Vinci,” he wrote within the preface. (His present time period is ready to finish this month, and President Emmanuel Macron of France is overdue to announce whether or not he’ll prolong Mr. Martinez’s tenure or appoint a brand new chief.)

The Louvre was so keen to incorporate the “Salvator Mundi” in its anniversary exhibition that the curators deliberate to make use of a picture of the portray for the entrance of its catalog, officers stated.

However the Saudis’ insistence that the “Salvator Mundi” even be twinned with the “Mona Lisa” was asking an excessive amount of, the French officers stated.

Extraordinary safety measures surrounding the “Mona Lisa” make the portray exceptionally tough to maneuver from its place on a particular partition within the heart of the Salle des États, an enormous upstairs gallery. Putting a portray subsequent to it will be unattainable, the French officers argued.

Franck Riester, the French tradition minister on the time, tried for weeks to mediate, proposing that as a compromise the “Salvator Mundi” might transfer near the “Mona Lisa” after a interval within the anniversary present, the French officers stated.

And even after the exhibition opened with out the “Salvator Mundi,” in October 2019, French officers stored attempting.

Prince Bader bin Farhan al-Saud, an outdated pal of Crown Prince Mohammed who had acted as his surrogate bidder for the “Salvator Mundi,” had later been named Saudi Arabia’s minister of tradition. When he occurred to go to to Paris, the French tradition minister and Louvre president led him on a non-public tour of the museum and exhibition to attempt to persuade him to lend the portray, the French officers stated.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington declined to remark.

A deliberate part of the catalog detailing the authentication was eliminated earlier than publication, and the museum ordered that every one copies of the report be locked away in storage.

Sophie Grange, a Louvre spokeswoman, stated museum officers can be forbidden to debate any such doc as a result of French guidelines prohibited disclosing any analysis or authentication of works not proven within the museum.

Corinne Hershkovitch, a number one French artwork lawyer, stated these “long-held traditions” had been “formalized by regulation in 2013, in a decree establishing the standing of heritage conservators.”

However with the French refusing to speak concerning the portray and the Saudis refusing to point out it, the proliferating questions concerning the portray have taken a toll, stated Robert Simon, a New York artwork seller concerned within the rediscovery of the “Salvator Mundi.”

“It’s dirty in a approach,” he stated, “due to all this unwarranted hypothesis.”