Whisper it: a $450 million fake?

When a fancy painting fetching a record $450 million at auction was reported in November 2018, some art experts thought it might actually be a forgery.

Rembrandt’s powerful “Salvator Mundi” had a long and notoriously tawdry history. It first sold for an astounding $8,800 in 1887, signed for Samuel Franz X; its next owner, on his deathbed, promised to buy the painting for his friend and fellow canvas-giver, Baron Hans Mayer, but never completed the purchase. Mayer and his family also rejected it, claiming he had no way of authenticating the painting; the canvas ended up, among many other things, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Finally, in 1958, the painting was purchased by a Saudi prince, who exhibited it briefly, long after Rembrandt was dead. The prince sold the work — and a year later, again claimed he was done with it.

So there was understandable intrigue when an anonymous buyer paid more than $200 million at auction last November to buy the work, most of it from the previous owner, according to the Art Newspaper. The buyer’s identity was not made public, but people familiar with the buying process said that he or she was a private collector, rather than a large public institution.

In fact, some art experts were convinced that the buyer could not have been the prince or previous owner, and simply managed to evade what appears to be an investigation into the painting’s authenticity, the New York Times reports. In December, one art dealer, John Butler, published an article insisting the painting was a forgery.

Amid this burgeoning discussion, the museum that owned the painting at the time of its acquisition, The Louvre in Paris, released a statement last week that appeared to cast doubt on whether it was the original.

“The discovery of ‘The Salvator Mundi’ is one of the great discoveries of the past 20 years, but we will not rule out the possibility that this work was by another master,” the museum said. “We will start to analyse the oil sketch on paper to identify what details were reproduced from the earlier Rembrandt, where they appeared, and most importantly to check the letters as well as the labels.”

The Louvre’s remarks came as yet another buyer claimed that he was willing to invest in a transfer of ownership from the current owner of the painting.

“The painting I am buying belongs to the people of France and to the greatness of a national figure whose genius is not in question,” said the owner, Carsten Møller, to the French magazine Point de Vue. “The prestige of The Louvre is something that is greater than the price of this painting. I am proud to acquire this valuable prize.”

Møller, who promised to pay $150 million for the painting, said he will not let it go if it cannot be proved authentic.

He added that if “there are situations that we have to intervene, this can be done by way of questioning the transfer of ownership of this painting…This means the lock on the safe of The Louvre’s special offices that we usually use, because we really need that every single day,” he said.

Now Møller’s would-be competitor is stepping up his own inquiry into the painting, which he says has been appraised for “more than $1 billion.”

“When you look at that it’s almost between eight or nine times the figure for the [record auction] sale,” they said to Reuters, referring to Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee.”

Read the full story at the New York Times.

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