By Anne Leader

In October 2013, a painting kept in a Swiss bank vault was claimed by some to be a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Recently, scholars who were quoted as supporting the new attribution have distanced themselves from these claims. In another twist, the picture was seized by Italian police in mid-February 2015 for being taken out of Italy illegally. Once the picture is repatriated, Italian conservators will conduct additional tests to verify its authenticity, if not its authorship.

In 1499, Isabella d’Este asked Leonardo to paint her portrait. A drawing, now kept in the Louvre, is the result of that request (seen above at left). Scholars have wondered whether Leonardo ever used the sketch to complete a portrait, with many assuming that he never executed a painting. 

Scientific tests have dated the recently discovered portrait, which seems to show Isabella in the guise of St. Catherine of Alexandria, between 1460 and 1650. Given such a wide date range, the work could easily have been made by a student, follower, or copyist at work in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. Since the attribution in late 2013, the painting’s value has risen from €95 to over €170 million, further raising the stakes for authentication by experts. Carlo Pedretti, Director of the Leonardo center at the University of California, Los Angeles has recently said he was misquoted in 2013, correcting the record to say: “I never attributed this painting to Leonardo…I only said it merited more study.“ Alessandro Vezzosi, Director of the Leonardo Museum in Vinci, Italy, has also expressed doubts that Leonardo had a hand in the work.

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