A 500-year-old copy of the world's most expensive painting has been returned to an Italian museum, whose staff didn't even realize it was stolen. During a search of an apartment in Naples, police came upon the copy of Salvator Mundi, a Leonardo da Vinci original depicting Jesus Christ holding up his right hand and grasping a crystal orb with his left. It was hidden inside a cupboard in the apartment, a little more than 4 miles from its last known location in the collection of Naples' Museum of San Domenico Maggiore, also known as the Doma Museum, per the BBC and Art Newspaper. Records show the painting—believed to have been completed by one of da Vinci's students between 1508-13—was loaned to Rome's Villa Farnesina for an exhibition in 2019, but it was returned to Naples by January 2020. It's unclear how the painting came to be at the apartment.
Its usual room at the museum "has not been open for three months," and there was no sign of a break-in, Naples prosecutor Giovanni Melillo tells AFP. "It is plausible that it was a commissioned theft by an organization working in the international art trade," he notes. He adds the painting was located Saturday "thanks to a brilliant and diligent police operation." The apartment's 36-year-old owner was arrested on suspicion of receiving stolen goods, police said. An investigation is ongoing. Meanwhile, the Doma Museum has welcomed back its prized piece. It's not certain who painted it: Many of da Vinci's students made copies of Salvator Mundi, and this one isn't signed. The prevailing theory points to the student Giacamo Alibrandi. But "according to some, a contribution from the master cannot be excluded," the museum notes. (Read more stolen art stories.)