The painting - one of fewer than 20 works generally accepted as being by the Renaissance master, according to Christie's - was officially bought by little-known Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud, reports say. "The image of the crown prince spending that much money to buy a painting when he's supposed to be leading an anticorruption drive is staggering", an expert on Saudi Arabia and former Central Intelligence Agency officer told the WSJ.
But The Journal reported that Bader was the nominal buyer, and Crown Prince Salman was identified in U.S. intelligence reports as the true owner.
A Saudi art world figure told the Wall Street Journal that "this deal was done via a proxy". As he and King Salman have also suspiciously appointed Prince Bader to head up the Saudi Research and Marketing Group and another government commission, all this only seems to make Prince Bader's sources of income even murkier-and particularly his motivations in making such a public display of his mysterious wealth on an item that may cause some cultural conflicts in his country.
According to a biography on the website of Energy Holdings International, whose date of writing was not apparent, Bader "has also been active in real estate projects in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and the rest of the Middle East over five years", including in partnership with "large reputed companies".
Auction house Christie's has also steadfastly declined to identify the buyer, whose purchase in NY for $450.3 million stunned the art world.
Bidding opened at $100m and began jumping by increments of up to $10m.
View Slideshow The interior of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's private Boeing 747 airplane in Riyadh Saudi Arabia
Prince Bader did not present himself as a bidder until the day before the auction. When bidding reached $330m, Bader offered $350m. The final price of $450m includes fees for the auction.
The young and dynamic crown prince, known by his initials MBS, used an intermediary to buy the much-sought-after painting of Christ, Salvator Mundi, the newspaper reported, citing United States intelligence and other unnamed sources.
But the work will give Riyadh bragging rights in a regional tug-of-war for some of the most expensive art works in the world.
Prince Bader splurged on this controversial and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ at a time when most members of the Saudi elite, including some in the royal family, are cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.
The highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction had been $179.4m for Pablo Picasso's painting Women of Algiers (Version O). Many of Saudi Arabia's richest and most powerful people were arrested and jailed last month.