The Leonardo-Mueller Conspiracy

A local TV news producer lit up the internet this week with claims that Robert Mueller is investigating the sale of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi.

Is Salvator Mundi Caught Up in the Mueller Probe?

The unexpected sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi more than a year ago has spawned an endless array of conspiracy theories. We’ve heard the work is a forgery; that the price was the result of a mis-understanding between two bidders who thought they were competing against a common foe; and, now, we’re being told “Salvator Mundi, may hold the key to the Trump-Russia investigation.”

That’s a big—and unsubstantiated—claim. It comes from local television news producer Zev Shalev on his personal reporting site, The report has been repeated with great alacrity by Vanity Fair and on Twitter by people like MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, the Trump resister Seth Abramson and the art world’s Jerry Salz.

If one bothers read through Shalev’s long story it turns out Mueller has not looked at the Leonardo sale in any way. Dmitry Rybolovlev’s Palm Beach real estate deal with Donald Trump is cited as Mueller’s interest in the oligarch. As far as anyone from the Gulf States involved in the Leonardo sale, Shalev has to resort to this:

It’s worth noting that four months after the Da Vinci auction Mueller sent investigators to Israel to ask about specific deposits to Psy-Group’s Cypriot bank accounts. The FBI travelled to Israel in February, a month before the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince was outed as Salvator Mundi’s second bidder.

Shalev uses Mueller’s investigation of a meeting set up by George Nader as a pretext but doesn’t demonstrate that Mueller is after any Saudi or Emirati princes.

Shalev’s Best Shot

Shalev’s argument isn’t so much investigative reporting as it is a conspiracy theory. The convoluted tale boils down to this: an Israeli company met with Donald Trump Jr. under the auspices of George Nader who said the UAE and Saudi Arabia would pay for the Psy-Group to help the Trump campaign win the election. To pay off the Russians, MBS supposedly “overpaid” for Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi by $300m so that the painting’s owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, could “as an owner of the Bank of Cyprus, […] quietly carve out payments to Psy-Group, along with any kickbacks to Putin, without anyone noticing. Here’s how Shalev puts it:

laundering hundreds of millions of dollars in full view of a global audience, may not seem like the smartest move, but the facts support this may have been what the two crown princes and Dmitry Rybolovlev tried to do.

Except Shalev doesn’t give the reader any facts. The most important fact would be an explanation of why Rybolovlev, who owned the Bank of Cyprus, would need a public auction to mask the movement of money. As the owner of the Bank of Cyprus, there would be far easier transactions to use to launder money.

Shalev’s case is a conspiracy theory because it elides the crucial facts that would provide any substance. Shalev opens with questions about where the painting is citing Martin Kemp’s comment in The Times that “nobody outside the immediate Arab hierarchy knows where it is.”

There have been claims that the work was not paid for by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism but Christie’s has confirmed both that the consignor was paid and the buyer took delivery of the art work. US Trust announced last week it would sponsor a major Leonardo show at the Louvre in September. There’s no reason to believe the painting won’t be included in that show. Though the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s decision not to put the work on display last Fall is what drives all of this speculation.

Was Turkish Intelligence Stirring the Pot?

Shalev isn’t the only one stirring the pot over the Salvator Mundi sale. The revelations that emerged in December of 2017 about the buyer of the painting didn’t come from the usual art world sources. The first report came from the New York Times’s David Kirkpatrick, the paper’s Middle East correspondent, who cited documents shown to the paper. That revelation was backed up quickly by the Wall Street Journal’s intelligence reporter, Shane Harris, who wrote, “was identified as the buyer […] in U.S. intelligence reports, according to people with direct knowledge of the information.”

In the aftermath of the auction, it was not surprising that the art press was searching for the buyer. What was surprising to see was the diplomatic and intelligence beat reporters coming up with the answer so quickly.

An explanation may have been been emerged from the Kashoggi affair. The murder of the Saudi journalist at the Turkish consulate revealed the depth of Turkish animosity toward the Saudi regime. It also demonstrated that Turkish intelligence has access to a great deal of information about Saudi activities—and that the Turks were very willing to use that information to embarrass the Saudi ruler.

With that in mind, Turkish intelligence would seem to have been a likely source of the documents the NYTimes saw. Why Harris’s intel sources quickly backed it up is hard to speculate upon. But the point here is that whoever produced the documents was trying to put MBS in an uncomfortable position in the midst of MBS’s crackdown on corruption and spending.

These revelations were followed a few months later by another embarrassing report. The Daily Mail published a thinly sourced story in March, 2018 claiming the final price for the Leonardo was the result of a mis-communication between bidders for MBS and bidders representing the rulers of Abu Dhabi:

'The bidding started to get high, and each of them thought they were bidding against the Qataris, and didn't want them to get it,' said one source close to the Emirati leader.

Shalev seems to have taken this report and spun it into his own version where the bidding was not accidental but coordinated to establish a “fake” price that would enable money laundering for the purpose of paying off election interference. These two claims are at war with each other. Neither seems to have much real evidence behind it.

The Harvard-Paris-Chinese Connection

There is another version of the bidding that demolishes both claims. This version is not better sourced but the sources do have much better reputations.

Theodore Stebbins, Jr. is an esteemed curator and art historian who worked for decades first at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and then at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. His successor at the Harvard Art Museums holds a chair with Stebbins’s name.

Stebbins gave a lecture at Harvard in May of 2018 where he discussed the highlights of his 50 years as a curator. He remarked (beginning at 16:30) that he was present when Douglas Dillon paid $2.3m at Sotheby’s in 1961 for Rembrandt’s Aristotle Examining the Bust of Homer to acquire the work for the Met. It too was highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art. Stebbins views this moment as the birth of the modern art market and reminds us that the sale was treated as front-page news by the New York Times then too.

Stebbins casually informs his audience that the under-bidder for the Leonardo was a Chinese billionaire.

Stebbins’s comment also puts a new gloss on two reports by Judith Benhamou-Huet who remarked in October and November on her site that industry sources pointed to the guarantor of the work being a Taiwanese billionaire collector very active in the market for buying and guaranteeing works. Her statements are couched in very tentative language:

  • “According to industry sources the extremely restored painting – the Louvre Abu Dhabi has still not yet resolved to exhibit it – may have been guaranteed for a total of 100 million dollars, possibly by Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen.”

  • “It would seem that the Salvator Mundi had been guaranteed by Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen.”

What does Stebbins know and should we believe him when he says the underbidder was a Chinese billionaire? Is Stebbins making a reference to the Taiwanese collector?

It’s hard to know. Even white-shoe art historians educated at Yale and Harvard have been known to gossip a little. (Though it is worth noting that later in the lecture, Stebbins’s successor, Ethan Lasser, makes a side comment (at 1:05:25) while responding to a question about the sale of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. The painting was bought from David Rockefeller’s collection for $12m. Lasser identifies Michael Bloomberg as a potential buyer of the work but is careful to frame that as “the word on the street.” Stebbins looks on during the comment without a wince or correcting his previous comments about the Leonardo.)

Readers can decide whom to believe. The point here is that Shalev’s version of events has far less plausibility than the story told by Benhamou-Huet or Stebbins (which are not necessarily the same story nor do they necessarily corroborate each other.) So we have a weakly argued claim that has plausible alternate explanations. Hardly the kind of thing that should be relied upon to bring down a president.

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