x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Family had possible Michelangelo in living room

Experts are debating the provenance of painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that a retired pilot kept behind a sofa before investigating its origins.

NEW YORK // The gritty city of Buffalo in upstate New York is the unlikely home of a lost painting by the Renaissance master Michelangelo, according to a new book by an Italian art expert, but doubts persist. 

The painting of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus languished behind the sofa in the living room of Martin Kober, a retired US air force pilot, who started to research the work's provenance after his retirement in 2003, the New York Post reported this week.

Antonio Forcellino, an art expert, travelled to Buffalo to examine the painting - a 48 centimetre by 63cm painting on wood that the Kober family called "The Mike" - and came away convinced it was the work of the 16th century painter and sculptor who created the famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. 

"I'm absolutely convinced that is a Michelangelo painting," Mr Forcellino told the tabloid. "In reality, this painting was even more beautiful than the versions hanging in Rome and Florence.

"I had visions of telling them that there was this crazy guy in America telling everyone he had a Michelangelo." 

But William Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, who examined the painting in 2005 at the invitation of Mr Kober, said it was "not likely" that Michelangelo was the artist. 

"I was pleasantly impressed by the work and it is of historical importance, but I reserve my final judgement," he said.

It could take many years before international art experts reach any consensus opinion on the painting, Mr Wallace said. Technology, such as X-rays, only helped to date the painting to the 16th century, but did not definitively prove who made it, he said. The Pietà in art is a depiction of Mary mourning over the body of Jesus. There are several versions in drawing and sculpture, the most famous being a sculpture by Michelangelo in the Vatican.

Mr Kober's Pietà is based on a chalk drawing by Michelangelo that is now part of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's collection in Boston, Mr Wallace said. 

"In the Renaissance, everyone admired this drawing and wanted a painted version. Then, any copy would have been seen as a Michelangelo because it was based on his design and invention," he said. "I haven't seen the painting since 2005 and it wasn't in great condition, but I believe it's undergoing restoration, which would cost many thousands of dollars."

The painting, which was once knocked off the Kober's wall by a tennis ball, is now kept in a bank vault, the New York Post said. "What is impressive about the painting is that its history or provenance can be traced back in an unbroken chain to the 16th century," Mr Wallace said. 

Mr Forcellino's book, La Pietà perduta, says the painting was finished around 1545 and given to Vittoria Colonna, a friend of Michelangelo.It then passed to two Roman Catholic cardinals and a German baroness. She bequeathed it to a favourite lady-in-waiting, who was the sister-in-law of Mr Kober's great-grandfather.

Mr Wallace said he has collected claims of attribution to Michelangelo for various works of art dating to 1900. 

sdevi@thenational.ae