Could a painting of Mary holding the body of Jesus that hung for years in an upstate New York family's home really be a 16th century Michelangelo? An Italian art historian thinks so.
Antonio Forcellino undertook years of research on the subject, which he documents in a new book, "The Lost Pieta." Now the painting's owner, Martin Kober, is encouraging the rest of the art world to take a close look with the hope the work will be universally accepted as a Michelangelo, restored and displayed.
"My goal has always been the integrity of the picture, security and trying to do the right thing," Kober said Wednesday in his Tonawanda home, north of Buffalo, where reproductions of the circa 1545 painting now hang. The original 19-inch x 25-inch work is in a bank vault.
This isn't a story of some wildly lucky garage sale find; Kober can trace the painting's ownership history back to 16th century Rome. Nor is it a case of someone not knowing what they had; it was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1880s.
But until Kober committed to researching the family heirloom full-time following his 2002 retirement from the Air Force, it was hard to get modern-day scholars' or curators' attention.
An examiner at the Isabel Gardner Museum in Boston wouldn't call it a Michelangelo when his mother dropped by with the painting during a trip there in the 1940s, Kober said.
His father and an uncle also were discouraged after going to New York City and hauling the painting from museum to museum, he said.
"Getting the attention of these experts was very difficult to do but my chemical makeup as a retired fighter pilot, iron man triathlete, wasn't going to have me giving up on this," said Kober, whose research has filled at least 24 binders since he received the painting from his parents about nine years ago.
They had tucked it for safekeeping into a leather art portfolio and stored it behind a couch for about 25 years after accidentally knocking it off the wall while dusting its frame.
The artwork, affectionately known as "the Mike," also has taken a couple of hits from tennis balls thrown across the room when Kober and his brothers were kids, he said.
About 2½ years ago, Italian art historian and restorer Antonio Forcellino responded to Kober's invitation and began looking into the painting, done on a half-inch panel of wood when Michelangelo would have been 70 years old. In an article published by the Sunday Times in London earlier this month, Forcellino said he was "breathless" when he saw it for the first time.
"Only a genius could have painted this — the darkness which underscores the suffering, the Virgin who looks as if she's screaming and the figure of Christ after he has been deposed from the cross. ... It's definitely by Michelangelo, and I was lucky to find documents that prove it," said Forcellino, whose book was published in Italy and will be available in the United States next year. "The X-rays that have been done are the key," he told the newspaper.
A telephone message for Forcellino left with his publisher, Polity Press, was not returned.
Michelangelo authority William E. Wallace, after examining the painting, stopped short of saying it was the work of Michelangelo's brush — but did not rule out the possibility.
"There's never proof, unfortunately," Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said Wednesday. "You can do scientific analysis of the paint and the surface and the panel and all that tells you is we're dealing with something old from the 16th century."
Even so, Wallace said, the painting's age and well-documented history make it deserving of display and the chance for scholarly debate about its origins.
"If it does get restored and put on exhibition, I will be happy to give it a second chance," he said. "... I did not declare it a Michelangelo, but I was very interested and thought it was an authentic 16th century object that deserved much greater attention."
The monetary value of a painting by the Italian master best known for his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David "would be astronomical," Wallace said. Kober said he has heard estimates from $100 million to $300 million.
The painting originally was created for Michelangelo's friend, Vittoria Colonna, and passed to a Catholic cardinal, an archbishop and a family in Croatia that hung it in palaces, Kober said. Through marriage, it found its way to a German baroness who willed it to Kober's great-great-grandfather's sister-in-law, Kober said.
After arriving in America in 1883, the painting was hung briefly in a Syracuse museum and in a temporary exhibit at New York's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kober said.
Wallace is not surprised by the art world's skepticism. "New" Michelangelos have been popping up at the rate of about two a year for the last decade, he said, and so far all but a couple of drawings have been determined to be the work of a follower or imitator or assistant.
"These are all hailed as great discoveries and they tend to fade from our attention and interest fairly quickly unless the object is inherently of high quality," he said, "and I do think we're talking about a high quality object here."