Painting Could Be Previously Unknown Da Vinci Work

A portrait by Leonardo da Vinci may have been discovered thanks to a centuries-old fingerprint. Art collector Peter Silverman, who paid $19,000 for the painting, Profile of the Bella Principessa, on behalf of an anonymous Swiss collector two years ago, says a spectral camera penetrated the varnish, and found a print comparable to similar ones found on other works by da Vinci.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Leonardo da Vinci has not turned out any new product of late. But if some forensic art examiners have their evidence right, a new da Vinci drawing has surfaced. And the discovery was made because the 15th century artist left his fingerprint on the work in question.

Art collector Peter Silverman bought a work called "Profile of Bella Principessa," profile of the beautiful princess, two years ago on behalf of a Swiss friend, and he joins us now from his home in Paris.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Silverman.

Mr. PETER SILVERMAN (Art Collector): Hello.

SIEGEL: And first, I'd like you to describe the work in question, an image of which is on our Web site at npr.org. I'm looking at it. It's a profile of, I gather, a beautiful princess.

Mr. SILVERMAN: She's wearing 15th century dress. She has a headdress, which is also particular to that period, with the braids.

SIEGEL: The work was purchased without it being understood to be a da Vinci. Two years ago, when you bought this drawing, painting, as you've explained to me, it's somewhere in between the two, actually, when you bought it from somebody who didn't think it was a da Vinci, how much did you pay on behalf of your friend?

Mr. SILVERMAN: Well, I actually paid $19,000. I didn't, quite frankly, think it was Leonardo da Vinci for the simple reason one doesn't think you're going to find a Leonardo da Vinci floating around a New York gallery, but I was sure that it was late 15th century.

SIEGEL: The telltale fingerprint, how does one match with confidence a fingerprint left on this "Profile of the Bella Principessa" with a fingerprint of somebody who died at the very beginning of the 16th century?

Mr. SILVERMAN: It's only thanks to Lumiere Technology Laboratory in Paris, who have a spectral camera, which is able to penetrate through the old varnish, the successive layers of restoration, to get down to the layer which the artist painted. The fingerprint was in the paint. Now, we know that Leonardo had a habit of working his paints with his fingers to spread the color, and they were able, after almost a year of constantly blowing up, blowing up, blowing up the images, to find a print, which was on the original paint surface.

This print coincides in eight points. Eight points is quite a pretty good match - eleven is enough to convict somebody - with a print which is on the painting in St. Jerome in the Vatican. And as well, there's a print which is on the painting of Dzhinevra dei Benchi in Washington, which matches this, which is quite convincing.

SIEGEL: So this painting or drawing that you bought on behalf of your friend for $19,000, if it is one of the - it would be extremely rare Leonardos - how much is it worth?

Mr. SILVERMAN: I have told the press that all you have to do is go on Google and check the 10 most expensive pictures in the world and see what they are, and number one is Jackson Pollock, which sold for, I think, over $150 million. So I'd say if a Jackson Pollock is worth $150 million, what's Leonardo da Vinci worth, one of the rarest things in the world? And there ain't going to be any more coming up, probably.

SIEGEL: Well, how do you know? How do you know that there aren't umpteen more Leonardos out there?

Mr. SILVERMAN: You're right. Who knows what's out there. And thanks to the new technology, we'll be able to at least say, yes or no, it is.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Silverman, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SILVERMAN: It's a pleasure and God bless.

SIEGEL: That's Peter Silverman, who spoke to us from his home in Paris. He's the man who bought the "Profile of the Bella Principessa," profile of a beautiful princess, which turns out, based on the fingerprint evidence, to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

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