A US art detective says he has proof a garish terracotta statue found discarded in a mouldy cardboard box in an Italian antiques shop is an original model by Michelangelo for his famous Pieta.
"When I first set eyes on the statue I couldn't speak for fully 10 minutes, it was so beautiful. Such mastery, it's impossible to capture in words," Roy Doliner told AFP in Rome this week as he presented his book on the discovery.
"I knew at once it was an original Michelangelo," he said, a conviction that drove him to challenge Italy's art experts, who had ascribed the 'Madonna della Febbre' statue of Mary cradling Jesus to Renaissance sculptor Andrea Bregno.
Doliner said the young Michelangelo would have made the terracotta model before embarking on the full marble statue. Italian experts say the work was by Bregno but it helped inspired Michelangelo's far more celebrated 15th-century sculpture.
The art detective and writer, who first unveiled his findings in December, won't disclose the whereabouts of the statue, though it has been seen and photographed by journalists.
Doliner was called in by a private collector who had discovered and bought the statue, had restored it and found what he thought were Jewish symbols etched onto the bottom of it which might prove the work was Michelangelo's.
Rebutted by traditional art historians, the collector turned to self-styled historical consultant Doliner, who specialises in Michelangelo mysteries and has written a book on codes hidden in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
"When it was found, the statue looked like a kitsch knock-off. It was covered in Scotch tape and had been painted over many times. It took three years to restore," said Doliner, who divides his time between Rome and New York.
"The restorers did every scientific test imaginable to date it, and narrowed it down to between 1473 and 1496," he added, making both Bregno and Michelangelo possible authors.
Though the Jewish letters turned out to be nothing more than marks left by the baking process when the terracotta statue was fired, Doliner's curiosity was piqued and he set out to discover the artist behind the work.
"After many years of researching Michelangelo, I can spot his modus operandi a mile away," said Doliner, also a specialist in Judaica, explaining how he used the Talmud and "Jewish Sherlock Holmes techniques" to crack the case.
Doliner said the statue couldn't be by Bregno, who specialised in building wall tombs for top-ranking cardinals, because the artist had never worked in terracotta, preferring to sketch his draft ideas.
The length of the statue also suggests it was made by Michelangelo, the art detective explains in 'Il Mistero Velato' (The Veiled Mystery), to be released in English on Wednesday.
Measurements differed among Italy's city states in that period, and the statue's base, at 58.3 centimetres (23 inches), matches the Florentine unit from Tuscany where Michelangelo grew up and learnt his trade.
"Bregno never made anything as exquisite as the Madonna della Febbre. He once made a Jesus out of marble but it is horrendous... like a Viking with a halo," Doliner said.
"No one who has seen the statue in person could think it was made by anyone else," he said.