For years, the international art community thumbed its nose at Martin Kober.
His questions about a painting he suspected was the work of the Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo were often met with skepticism, if not outright disdain.
But the retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and former mountain climber, marathon runner and triathlete persevered. Over the course of eight years, largely working out of his City of Tonawanda home, Kober, 53, methodically amassed thousands of documents, contacted dozens of art experts and tried to bend the ear of anyone who would listen.
"I've just tried to do the honorable thing. I first went to the people you would go to: the museums, the National Gallery, and I have all of their communications. They all said we're just not interested because this isn't a Michelangelo," Kober said. "It's just been living in a shroud of secrecy because nobody's talked about it."
But everybody's talking now.
After drawing the attention and endorsement of Italian art conservator and Michelangelo scholar Antonio Forcellino, the 19-by-26-inch painting that sat tucked behind a couch in Kober's childhood home near Rochester for a quarter-century is now the focus of international attention. The painting is now housed in a locked metal box inside a vault in an undisclosed Western New York bank.
The work, which depicts the scene of an anguished Mary mourning her son Jesus and flanked by cherubs, is awaiting a planned exhibition in Italy and the scrutiny of art scholars that will almost inevitably follow. It is the subject of Forcellino's new book, "La Pieta Perduta" ("The Lost Pieta").
That process, Kober said, will take years. But if a consensus emerges, the painting could eventually be worth more than $100 million. Even if the 16th century painting was not the work of Michelangelo, it still ranks as an exceedingly rare find and will fetch a substantial sum.
During an interview Wednesday at his home in Tonawanda, Kober stood in front of a dining room table arrayed with books, journals and documents, and recounted a tale that was part "Da Vinci Code" detective story, part art lesson.
The painting, Kober said, was produced by Michelangelo for his close friend Vittoria Colonna in 1545. From Colonna, the painting made its way to Archbishop Reginald Pole, who, like Colonna and Michelangelo, was an adherent of a then-radical and unpopular Catholic movement known as the "Spirituali."
Another Catholic bishop acquired the painting from Pole and whisked it away to the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, where it eventually was sold off to a wealthy family. There it stayed, on the walls of that family's villa, for nearly 300 years.
The painting then took a side trip to Germany and, through a series of well-documented connections too laborious to detail, wound up in the hands of Kober's great-great-grandfather. It was brought to America in 1883 and exhibited as a Michelangelo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1885-86. It was later shown and written about at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in 1901.
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William E. Wallace, a prominent Michelangelo scholar and author of the 2009 book "Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and His Times," inspected the painting five years ago at Kober's invitation.
"I was immediately impressed and thought it was well worth greater attention," said Wallace, a professor of art history at Washington University in St. Louis. "The point in favor of this object is its clear relationship to a Michelangelo design and the fact that the owner has a virtually unbroken provenance, or the history of the painting's ownership since the 16th century right down to the modern age. And that in itself is remarkable."
Many famous paintings, such as Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," have no such records to prove their authenticity. Even so, Wallace went on to say that the likelihood that the great Italian master's brush ever touched the painting is slim.
"In the Renaissance, what was important is the idea and the design were by Michelangelo," Wallace said. "We, however, want to know whether Michelangelo put a brush to that panel, and that's probably not terribly likely."
Kober, who said Wallace continues to encourage him to seek scholars to investigate the painting's authenticity, said that he's "100 percent" sure the painting is the work of Michelangelo. To support his case, Kober pointed to letters in which Colonna referenced the painting itself, as well as infrared scans of the painting (a standard practice for restoration and historical investigations) that reveal it was not simply a copy of a sketch by someone working with Michelangelo but a fully realized painting executed by the artist himself.
Asked if there were paintings labeled as Michelangelos in major museums that were not painted by the artist himself, Wallace said there were.
"Everybody wants the big names. But the same is true of Picasso, Rembrandt, Vermeer," he said. "I've been tracking attributions to Michelangelo since 1900, of which there were about one every two years since 1900 until 1996, when a big one was found. Every one of these is hailed as the discovery of the century and it's going to revolutionize everything that we know about Michelangelo."
Kober said he welcomes debate over the painting's authenticity.
"Now these people who deny it will have to tell why they deny it," Kober said. And he said he's ready to take those arguments on. He is confident in his ability, with Forcellino's help and Wallace's measured encouragement, and that the world will eventually acknowledge that the Kober family's "Mike" deserves its nickname.
"What I happen to think of it really doesn't matter. It was getting the attention of these experts that was very difficult to do," Kober said. "Ninety-nine percent of people would have given up."