ONE EVENING LAST FALL, ON HER daily walk home from New York's Institute of Fine Arts, Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt passed the French Embassy's cultural center on Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On this night, there was a party going on in the usually dark mansion, built in 1906 for the Payne Whitney family by architect Stanford White. The place was ablaze with light. A three-foot statue of Cupid, which had stood for 90 years atop an interior courtyard fountain, looked strangely different. "I pressed my nose against the glass," says Brandt. "I felt like the Little Match Girl." Brandt could see the subtle shadows of delicately carved muscles, exquisitely rendered curls of hair, and the way the strap of a curious quiver cut into the youth's flesh. Goodness, what could have reduced a sophisticated professor to such schoolgirl tremors? She felt she was in the presence of a Michelangelo or, at the least, "an important sculpture of the 15th century, very probably by him," as she put it last week.
Brandt rushed back the next day with one of her graduate students, Seth Jayson, a camera and a raft of high-powered lights. She spent the next few months researching documents and studying Jayson's photos to confirm her intuition. Such thoroughness is the reason "it's a rare art historian who would want to contradict her," says Jack Wasserman, Temple University professor emeritus. Met director Philippe de Montebello, his curators of European sculpture and painting, and the head of Italian Renaissance art at London's National Gallery have lined up with Brandt on the attribution to Michelangelo. If Charlton Heston doesn't turn out to have chiseled it, the statue will be only the second bona fide Michelangelo uncovered in this century, and the only one in America.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) probably made the statue when he was about 20 and, according to Brandt, "a brilliant young artist, still finding his way." Met curator James Draper says, "You see passages that remind you of the early Michelangelo." Draper had glimpsed the sculpture from a bus in the mid-1980s and thought it might be the one pictured in a 1902 London auction catalog, where it was attributed to Michelangelo. R went unsold at that auction and was returned to Rome, where Stanford White apparently purchased it. In 1968 Florentine scholar Alessandro Parronchi published the old auction photo as a kind of note in a bottle to other art historians. He was convinced it was a lost Michelangelo, but no one picked up the lead. "Nobody said anything," says Parronchi, now 81.
Some art historians are more skeptical than Brandt or Parronchi that the consular Cupid is Michelangelo's work. Columbia professor James Beck (a longtime detractor of the Vatican's restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a project for which Brandt was a consultant) thinks Brandt went public too soon. "With a discovery in medicine," he says, "you would have an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, so that the specialists can . . . make an intelligent evaluation." William Wallace of Washington University in St. Louis admires Brandt's scholarship in general. But he cautions, "I have a list of 25 to 30 other objects [claimed to be by Michelangelo] that have then subsided into obscurity."
Last week, as the stylish and telegenic professor Brandt went on news shows and posed with Cupid, everyone began to wonder where the statue would end up. The French, who bought the mansion and its contents in 1952, could pack it off to the Louvre. Denis Delbourg, the embassy's cultural consul, says no unilateral moves are planned: "We are no longer in the reign of Napoleon III." Still, letting a genuine Michelangelo linger in that courtyard is a little like hanging the Mona Lisa in a dormer bedroom with no locks on the windows. De Montebello called Louvre director Pierre Rosenberg. "I said, 'Look, I don't want to be presumptuous, but the statue is close to the Met and we'd love to have it on loan'." Rosenberg said the "eminently reasonable" proposal would have to be studied, but thanks for phoning.
The greatest irony is, of course, that for decades art historians have hobnobbed within touching distance of Cupid and never noticed what a treasure it was. Francois Cusset of the French cultural services says that people used to think the whole fountain was "kitsch" and "laughed at the cute cheeks." Then along came Brandt. "That NYU woman," says Cusset, "it was the coup of her career. R was a nice American example of personal ambition." That's nothing to be ashamed of, as Michelangelo himself would probably agree.