[Editor’s note added 1/11: there are reasons to look askance at the report referenced below.]
Who would have guessed that the Dallas Museum of Art would enjoy a footnote in the story of the ongoing Special Counsel Investigation into the 2016 election?
Brace yourself for what has to be (if it turns out to be true) an incredible, jaw-dropping, off-the-wall art world story—an unbelievable tale of money laundering, auction fraud, social media manipulation, and multi-national collusion between Russia, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, and the Trump campaign.
According to this report by journalist and Murrow Award-winning executive producer Zev Shalev, Salvator Mundi, a painting attributed to Leonardo DaVinci that once sat in the vaults of the Dallas Museum of Art, may have been used as a tool to launder money to fund a mass misinformation campaign that helped get President Donald Trump elected.
Shalev’s piece attempts to connect some curious dots between the painting and the Robert Mueller-led investigation. Here’s the gist of it:
We have written about the (supposed) DaVinci several times because it was perhaps the most brazen example of former Dallas Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson’s many efforts to raise the international profile of the museum. Anderson brought the painting to Dallas and put it on display in the museum’s secured basement. Then he invited the upper echelon of the museum’s patronage to view it, hoping to convince the philanthropists to cough up the $150 million asking price. Dallas passed.
The painting resurfaced again at a Christie’s auction in 2017, where it sold to an anonymous buyer for $450 million—$300 million more than the original asking price. That mark-up made Salvator Mundi the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Ever since the sale, however, more and more art experts have questioned the painting’s authenticity. As I wrote in December, a planned exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been indefinitely postponed, leading some to wonder if questions about the painting’s provenance had given the museum cold feet.
Perhaps the story is even stranger than that. The “missing” masterpiece—apparently no one has seen the painting for a year and its actual whereabouts have been unknown for 100 days, according to Shalev—may have less to do with art history and more to do with the shadowy forces shaping the contemporary world order.
Let’s start with the seller of the work, Dmitry Rybolovlev, the lucky man who pocked an unexpected $300 million when the price of the painting rapidly shot up on the auction block. Rybolovlev is a so-called “oligarch in exile”
who made his billions selling a mining business to the Kremlin. He owns a luxurious penthouse in Monaco, Monaco’s soccer team, a significant stake of the Bank of Cyprus, and a reported $2 billion in art. [CORRECTION: According to a representative for Rybolovlev, Shalev miss-reported that he owns a significant stake in the Bank of Cyrpus or sold a mining business to the Kremlin.] Rybolovlev also has ties to Trump. He is under investigation by Mueller for his purchase of Donald Trump’s Palm Beach home in 2006 for $95 million—a conspicuously high price for a property Trump had bought only four years earlier for $41 million. At the time, the sale helped Trump stave off another bankruptcy.
The DaVinci may have figured into a similar inflated value laundering scheme:
Rybolovlev put the masterpiece up for auction through Christie’s in November 2017. The estimated price for Lot 9B was between $80 and $120 million. Christies’s auctioneers were stunned when bidding quickly surged past $80 million in just seconds and then, just as effortlessly over $130 million. Two anonymous bidders continuously outbid each other, not stopping until they had run up the price to $450.3 million, making it the single most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
In the ensuing days, The New York Times unmasked Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as the masterpiece’s real buyer but the identity of the second bidder stayed hidden for months.
In March, The Daily Mail revealed the counter-bidder was Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). The princes claimed they had no idea the other was bidding and dismissed the whole thing as a mistake.
But was it a mistake? Shalev connects the two names involved with the sale with some meetings held by the Trump campaign team in 2016 that are central to the Mueller investigation. He writes that both the crown princes were represented by a Lebanese-American businessman named George Nader (who is cooperating with the Mueller probe) at a meeting with the Trump’s campaign brokered by Blackwater founder Erik Prince. The purpose was to connect the campaign with an Israeli “social media manipulation” company called Psy-Group. Shalev believes the plan was that the princes would fund the work of Psy-Group, who would create a disinformation campaign that could boost Trump’s White House bid.
To be clear, these are the very same crown princes George Nader represented at the August 3rd meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. and whom, Nader promised, would pay for the social media campaign.
On the seller’s side, Dmitry Rybolovlev was not only well-acquainted with Psy-Group’s founder but as an owner of the Bank of Cyprus, he could quietly carve out payments to Psy-Group, along with any kickbacks to Putin, without anyone noticing
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.
Like I said, it is all pretty wild and reads like the outlandish plot of a fictional political thriller. But then, reality often seems stranger than fiction these days. If any of this turns out to be true, we’ll all have to wonder what would have happened if the DMA had simply bought the painting.