Italian Police return ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting to museum unaware of its theft

An Italian museum did not realise its ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting had been stolen, until police discovered it hidden in the bedroom of a nearby apartment. The Doma Museum collection at the San Domenico Maggiore church in Naples had been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic when the theft occurred.  

Showing Jesus Christ making the sign of the cross with his hand and holding a crystal orb, the painting is a close copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) famous ‘Salvator Mundi’ (around 1500). Experts believe it was painted by one of Leonardo’s students, possibly Girolamo Alibrandi (1470-1524) or his “little devil” lover Salaì (1480-1524), between 1508 and 1513.  

The painting was found on Saturday thanks to a brilliant and diligent police operation,” explained Naples prosecutor Giovanni Melillo. Police arrested the 36-year-old owner of the apartment on suspicion of receiving stolen goods on 18 January 2021.   

But nobody had reported the 500-year-old painting missing. The museum had closed its doors to staff and the public due to coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period. Melillo added that “the room where the painting is kept has not been open for three months.”  

Investigators also mysteriously found no sign of a break-in that might reveal how the painting travelled 7km away from the museum. “Whoever took the painting wanted it, and it is plausible that it was a commissioned theft by an organisation working in the international art trade,” proposed Melillo.  

In November 2017, Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ became the most expensive painting in the world after it sold at Christie’s for a record-breaking $450 million (£335 million). Experts have since cast doubt on its attribution to Leonardo and the painting has not appeared in public. The Naples painting is one of 20 extant copies of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ created by the school of Leonardo.  

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