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The mysterious buyer of the $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting? A Saudi prince

Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" on display at Christie's auction rooms in London. (/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press/ File)

By David D. Kirkpatrick New York Times  

LONDON — He is a little-known Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector and no publicly known source of great wealth. But the prince, Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, is the mystery buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Salvator Mundi,” which fetched a record $450.3 million at auction last month, documents show.

The revelation that Bader is the purchaser, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times, links one of the most captivating mysteries of the art world with palace intrigues in Saudi Arabia that are shaking the region. Bader splurged on this controversial and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ at a time when most members of the Saudi elite, including some in the royal family, were cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.

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As it happens, Bader is a friend and associate of the leader of the purge: the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The $450.3 million purchase is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown. The crown prince’s supporters portray him as a reformer, but the campaign of extrajudicial arrests has been unprecedented for modern Saudi Arabia, worrying Western governments about political stability in the world’s largest oil producer, alarming rights advocates and investors about the rule of law, and roiling energy markets.

Mohammed’s consolidation of power has upended decades of efforts by previous Saudi rulers to build loyalty and consensus within the royal family. And even before the disclosure of the record-breaking purchase in a New York art auction by one of his associates, Mohammed’s extravagance had already raised eyebrows.

A spokeswoman for Christie’s, the auction house that sold “Salvator Mundi,” said it did not comment on the identities of buyers or sellers without their permission. Bader did not respond to a detailed request for comment. But as The Times was pressing for a response Wednesday, the newly opened branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, tweeted that the painting “is coming to Louvre Abu Dhabi.” The Saudi crown prince is a close ally of his counterpart in Abu Dhabi.

Documents provided from inside Saudi Arabia and reviewed by The Times reveal that representatives for the buyer, Bader, did not present him as a bidder until the day before the sale. He was such an unknown figure that executives at Christie’s were scrambling to establish his identity and his financial means.