As first reported by Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (ANSA), investigators recovered the work, which normally hangs in the Basilica di San Domenico Maggiore’s Doma Museum, from the apartment of an unnamed 36-year-old who was promptly arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen goods.
Interestingly, the museum’s staff hadn’t even realized that the artwork—dated to the early 1500s and attributed to the school of Leonardo—was missing. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, “the room where the painting is kept has not been open for three months,” Naples prosecutor Giovanni Melillo tells Agence France-Presse (AFP). Authorities found no signs of a break-in, making it unclear exactly when and how the religious scene was stolen.
“Whoever took the painting wanted it, and it plausible that it was a commissioned theft by an organization working in the international art trade,” Melillo adds.
According to the Associated Press (AP), Naples police arrested the apartment owner after he shared a “less than credible” story of “casually” purchasing the painting at a flea market.
Speaking with AFP, Melillo says, “The painting was found on Saturday thanks to a brilliant and diligent police operation.”
The stolen Salvator Mundi is one of around 20 surviving copies attributed to Leonardo’s followers, notes Kabir Jhala for the Art Newspaper. Like the original, the painting depicts Christ with corkscrew curls; he holds a crystal orb in one hand and raises the other in a blessing.
In 2017, Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi sold at auction for a record-breaking $450 million despite doubts regarding its authenticity. One of just 20 or so paintings widely attributed to the artist, the work—thought by some critics to be a product of his studio with only minimal contributions from the Old Master himself—was supposed to go on view at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in September 2018. But the museum unexpectedly canceled the unveiling, and the painting hasn’t been seen in public since.
Though experts can’t definitively determine the recently recovered copy’s authorship, scholars believe that someone in the artist’s workshop created it between 1508 and 1513. The museum’s website suggests that Leonardo student Girolamo Alibrandi painted the work. Per the Art Newspaper, a prominent Leonardo restorer has also floated another attribution: Gian Giacomo Caprotti, better known as Salaì, or “Little Devil.”
Regardless of the work’s primary creator, “a contribution from the master cannot be excluded,” the museum notes. Another page on its site describes the copy as a “refined pictorial drafting” of the original.
Produced in Rome, the painting was likely brought to Naples by Giovanni Antonio Muscettola, Charles V’s ambassador to Pope Clement VII. It was most recently displayed in 2019, when it was loaned to the Villa Farnesina for the “Leonardo in Rome: Influences and Legacy” exhibition. The Roman art museum restored the work as part of a technical study for the show.
Speaking with the AP, police chief Alfredo Fabbrocini says the discovery was rewarding “because we resolved a case before it was created.”
He adds, “The painting was found but its custodian hadn’t realized it was stolen.”