Since 2009, Martin Kober has been on a mission to convince the art world that he owns an original painting by Michelangelo.
At almost every turn, the American art establishment has ignored or dismissed Kober’s claims. Some say the painting, which depicts an anguished Madonna and dead Christ flanked by a pair of muscle-bound cherubs, is too ugly. Others claim the wooden panel on which it is painted is too well-preserved to be almost 500 years old. Still others argue that Michelangelo only created drawings of that particular scene, such as the one in the collection of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, not paintings.
But Kober, whose claims are supported by several respected Italian art experts and organizations against a cheeping chorus of American detractors, is not giving up. Not by a long shot.
Some new fuel for his argument comes with the new English translation of “The Ragusa Pietà: History and Restoration,” a book published by the Italian art restoration and conservation institute known as the ISCR that argues forcefully for the painting’s authenticity. Across 128 illustrated and highly technical pages chronicling the ISCR’s painstaking restoration of the painting, researchers and scholars make forceful arguments that it is an original work of art from Michelangelo’s period, that it includes rare pigments and painting techniques associated with the Florentine master’s studio and that correspondence from the time suggests that Michelangelo created paintings as well as drawings of the scene.
What the book can’t do is prove conclusively that Michelangelo’s brush ever touched Kober’s panel. But it does give art historians, some of whom have dismissed Kober’s claims out of hand without seeing the artwork, several compelling reasons to re-examine the painting and their own arguments against it.
It has to be noted that Kober has a vested financial interest in pinning painting to Michelangelo, an attribution that could reap up to $300 million. Though he said he hasn’t paid a dime for the painting’s most recent restoration or its exhibition in Rome, the financial incentive is likely what has dissuaded so many in the American museum community from taking Kober seriously. (He did finance the translation and printing of the English-language edition of the book, which cost about $14,000.)
Kober describes himself as “Joe Bag-o’-donuts” in the American art world, a fact that became clear to him after several of the country’s top museums unceremoniously rebuffed his attempts to have the painting examined. He’s hoping that will change after he sends off copies of the translation to American museums.
“I just think it’s a painful process and it’s certainly not a quick process,” he said. But with the information in the new book, he added, “I don’t think it’s going to take that long.”
Kober pointed to the recent sale of a long-lost painting by da Vinci for $75 million from a consortium of New York City art dealers to a private European collector. That painting, long thought to have been a poorly executed copy of da Vinci’s original, was sold for just $72 at a 1958 auction. Later restoration efforts removed 500 years of overpainting, grime and other modifications and revealed it as the genuine article.
In that case, the painting’s owners and restoration experts kept the complex process of restoration and reattributing the painting almost entirely out of the press. In most cases surrounding artworks by old masters and the process of restoring them, the American art academy expects this sort of decorum and frowns upon those who violate it.
But Kober, frustrated that his painting was not receiving more attention from American museums and evidently eager to speed the attribution process along in the interest of cashing in, was much more vocal. While art historians are impressed by the kind of hard data and scientific analysis included in the new book, they’re less impressed by the sorts of media reports Kober’s story attracted.
“They kind of knew what they were doing,” Kober said of the savvy owners of the da Vinci, whose story is similar in many ways to that of his own pietà. “I’m just trying to get to the truth.”
But sometimes, especially when another art historian or other expert discounts the painting as a copy or a fake, the truth still seems far away.
“One thing that I do quite often when I feel like I’m ready to give up after hearing another ‘expert’ say it just doesn’t look right, is fire up my computer and open up my files to look at the Pietà,” Kober wrote in an email. “It fits the screen width perfectly. I have to drag it up and down to examine it all and all I can say is that it is beautiful! And that is enough to reaffirm my convictions that I will not give up on this quest.”