File photo taken on October 24, 2017 shows Christie’s employees pose in front of a painting entitled Salvator Mundi by Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci at a photocall at Christie’s auction house in central London ahead of its sale at Christie’s New York on November 15, 2017. Photo: AFP

PARIS (France): Later this year, the Louvre in Paris will host an exhibition of masterpieces by the Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci to mark his death 500 years ago in France.

But the work that in recent months has been the intense focus of scrutiny by the media and da Vinci specialists, may not be on show.

In 2017, “Salvator Mundi” was sold at auction by Christie’s as a work by da Vinci for a record $450 million. But it has not been displayed in public since, triggering doubts about its ownership, its whereabouts and its authenticity.

The painting, a portrait of Jesus, was to go on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September last year. But its unveiling was postponed by the museum without any explanation.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has kept tight-lipped about the identity of the buyer, saying only that the emirate’s Department of Culture and Tourism had “acquired” it.

And the mystery has further deepened ahead of a visit by Italian President Sergio Mattarella who will join France’s President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday on a trip to the Loire Valley to mark the anniversary of da Vinci’s death there in 1519, at the age of 67.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the buyer of the picture was Saudi prince Badr ben Abdallah, acting in the name of powerful Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

He has never confirmed or denied the report.

Prince Badr was appointed to head the kingdom’s culture ministry in a government shake up in June.

File photo taken on October 24, 2017 shows Christie’s employees pose in front of a painting entitled Salvator Mundi by Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci at a photocall at Christie’s auction house in central London ahead of its sale at Christie’s New York on November 15, 2017. Photo: AFP

Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring United Arab Emirates are very close allies who are both engaged militarily in the war against rebels in Yemen.

Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) is also a close confidant of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed who along with Macron opened the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the first foreign institution to carry the name of the great Paris museum.

The painting’s disappearance comes as MBS’s international reputation has taken a battering over the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, in which he denies any involvement.

Artprice, the leading art market information service, said clerics from Sunni Islam’s leading authority the Al Azhar university in Cairo told MBS the painting could not be displayed on religious grounds.

Jesus is seen as a prophet within Islam, which prohibits any physical depiction of God. But the picture portrays him as a saviour and thus a deity.

Many art experts remain unconvinced of the painting’s authenticity.- AFP