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Maybe Michelangelo: Is living room painting a masterpiece?

In this June 26, 2017 photo, Martin Kober displays literature and copies of a family heirloom that he believes was painted by Renaissance master Michelangelo, at his home in Tonawanda, N.Y. Kober is convinced the painting of a dying Jesus that hung above the mantel in his upstate New York childhood home is the work of Michelangelo. Getting experts to agree remains the $300 million hurdle. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — Martin Kober is convinced the painting of a dying Jesus that hung above the mantel in his upstate New York childhood home is the work of Michelangelo. Getting experts to agree remains the $300 million hurdle.

That’s the potential value of the 19-by-25-inch (48-by-64-centimeter) work that Kober’s family affectionately calls the “the Mike,” a one-time living room fixture that occasionally got dinged by a thrown tennis ball and once fell from the wall while being dusted.

Kober has for the last 15 years taken his Michelangelo suspicions to the art world and gotten a mixed bag of scholarly opinions. For now, the circa 1545 family heirloom that was given to Kober’s great-great-grandfather’s sister-in-law by a German baroness remains in an out-of-state vault while he seeks the elusive validation.

“It’s tormenting now,” said Kober, a retired commercial pilot who grew up in the Rochester suburb of Greece. “I’m nobody, I’m not connected. I don’t know if that’s it.”

The wood-panel painting depicts a dying Jesus supported by two angels in the lap of the Virgin Mary. Doubters view it as simply not good enough to be by Michelangelo or believe it’s another artist’s painted version of a much-copied Michelangelo drawing. Some question whether the then-70-year-old artist would have had time to fit the painting in between the Last Judgment fresco at the Sistine Chapel and another fresco at the Pauline Chapel.

Supporters of Kober’s claim cite written historical references and forensic evidence that includes Michelangelo’s preferred paint type, small brush strokes and mid-work changes visible by infrared testing that they say indicate an original, rather than copied, work.

“Unfortunately, the world of attribution is never a definitive affair,” said Michelangelo expert William Wallace, who is not surprised a consensus has yet to emerge. Assigning any work to a master is almost always a matter of waxing and waning scholarly opinion, he said, and pieces tend to fall in and out of favor as opinions change over time.

Kober says the museums and experts that have resisted his painting have not examined the piece or fully considered the historical and scientific evidence, much of which is spelled out in a 2014 book, “The Ragusa Pieta: History and Restoration.” The book documents the philanthropic Rome Foundation’s cleaning and diagnostic analysis of the painting in Italy beginning in 2011, before it was displayed there as part of a Renaissance exhibition.

Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in St. Louis who saw the painting before it was restored, hasn’t ruled out that it is by Michelangelo. But he believes it was more likely painted by a longtime friend and contemporary of the artist, Marcello Venusti, with Michelangelo’s blessing.

In Renaissance times, Wallace said, the painting and others like it still would have been considered Michelangelo’s because they were based on a Michelangelo drawing and done at his behest.
Among the biggest obstacles to its acceptance are differing interpretations of written references to the work dating back to the Renaissance, and whether they refer to a drawing, as was long thought, or a painting.

One of the painting’s strongest champions is Italian art historian and restorer Antonio Forcellino, who has examined the painting and wrote about it in “The Lost Michelangelos” in 2011.

Compared to European scholars, “the coldness of American institutions is unexplainable to this painting,” Forcellino said in an email.

For now, a frustrated Kober can’t understand why such positive opinions have not generated more buzz among scholars. He’s now willing to turn over his quixotic verification quest to an artistic or philanthropic organization with more clout.

“This painting can be poked and prodded all over again if that’s what it takes, but the results will be the same,” he said. “It’s a Michelangelo!”

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