09/30/2012 10:54 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2012

'Young Mona'? Doubts Grow as Experts Hostile, Evasive or Say 'Misrepresented'

A version of the Mona Lisa, that had languished unseen in a Swiss bank vault for nearly half-a-century, was unveiled with all the razzamatazz of a new Ferrari in Geneva on September 27. Journalists from around the world were summoned to a two-hour press conference at the swanky Hôtel Beaurivage, organized by the Zurich-based Mona Lisa Foundation that was set up in March 2011 to foster 'research and analysis' in connexion with the painting, acquired by an unidentified 'international consortium' in 2008.

The 85 x 65cm canvas -- a surface Leonardo is never otherwise known to have used -- shows a woman in the same pose and clothes as the Louvre's Mona Lisa, but set against a very different background and with the face of a much younger woman. It was presented as an earlier version of the Mona Lisa, by the hand of Leonardo himself, and showing the same sitter -- commonly identified as Florentine housewife Lisa Gherardini.

The work was not totally unknown to art historians, having been dubbed the Isleworth Mona Lisa after the home town of Hugh Blaker, the dealer who discovered it in an English country house in 1913. But it had been lost from view since being acquired (and promptly locked away) by another dealer, Henry Pulitzer, in 1962, and only re-emerged after the death of his partner Elizabeth Meyer in 2008.

The press conference, seeking to rebrand the work as the Earlier Mona Lisa, began with a slick 22-minute video breathlessly narrated by Michael J.B. Allen, former president of the Renaissance Society of America, that interspersed shots of Florence with comments from various 'experts' and a heroic portrayal of Mr Blaker. Markus Frey, the Swiss business lawyer who chairs the Foundation's six-man board, was interviewed while chomping on a fat cigar, as if to underline video's mood of brazen self-confidence.

As the credits faded, the curtains were pulled back amidst a reverential hush and the 'Young' Mona Lisa unveiled to a flash-happy forest of cameras.

Any euphoria was swiftly punctured by the announcement that key-note speaker, the former World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov -- not renowned for his expertise in Renaissance art, but one of eight international 'Advisors' to the Foundation -- had cried off. So had Carlo Pedretti, director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California, described as 'probably the greatest expert of all on Leonardo da Vinci.' Pedretti had, however, sent a letter calling on the Foundation to become 'an FBI for Leonardo studies,' and evoking, somewhat patronizingly, its 'Leonardo' attribution as a 'most courageous working hypothesis.'

Another leading Leonardo specialist, lined up by the Foundation to add academic clout to its attribution, seemed at equal pains to do just the opposite: Alessandro Vezzosi, Director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci in the artist's home town of Vinci, hailed by the Foundation as 'the leading expert on Mona Lisa.' Speaking in Italian with all the cagey diplomacy of a Papal Nuncio, Vezzosi called the painting 'an important work of art deserving respect and strong consideration,' but was no keener to assign it to Leonardo than Pedretti, adding: 'I don't want to speak today about the attribution that has been formulated by the Mona Lisa Foundation... it's a fascinating possibility [but] a lot of research and technical examinations remain to be done.' In a subsequent interview, Vezzosi admitted that the press conference was premature.

Technical input came from John F. Asmus, a research physicist at the University of California who, although presented as a 'top multispectral digitization expert,' concentrated more on the painting's geometric similarities with the Louvre's Mona; and Joe Mullins, a forensic Imaging Specialist who has worked as 'a consultant to the FBI' and was hired by the Foundation to show the face of the Louvre's Mona Lisa being digitally 'age-regressed' -- a process that saw her triumphantly morph into the 'Earlier Mona Lisa.'

'Based on my 13 years of age-regressing and age-progressing, I am convinced these are two different images of Mona Lisa at two different times of her life!' thundered Mullins.

Robert Meyrick, head of art at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and the world's leading expert on Hugh Blaker, portrayed him as an art lover of such integrity that he preferred to die in poverty rather than sell his extensive art collection. But Meyrick was unable to shed any light on the crucial issue of provenance, piously hoping that Blaker's early diaries might one day turn up and enable the country-house in Somerset (south-west England) where he acquired the work to be identified.

The press conference also marked the launch of a luxurious, gilt-edged, 320-page, $99 book entitled Mona Lisa -- Leonardo's Earlier Version. Author Stanley Feldman seemed on the defensive as he declared: 'We welcome new discussion and new pieces of evidence. We welcome controversy. We don't have a problem with opinions. But we like opinions to be expressed by people who have seen the painting first.'

His book, with its crime-thriller writing-style (Blaker is described as 'heart pounding' as he discovers a 'painting that had been likely hanging in the same bleak corner for over a century'), is a lavishly incoherent hotch-potch of Leonardobilia (there are full-page sections on Leonardo's vineyard and his sexuality, for instance). It will sit proudly on oligarch coffee-tables, but may struggle to set the academic world alight.

The Foundation claimed its research and promotion already ran into 'millions of euros' -- funded by the consortium and 'private donations.' Markus Frey claimed that the painting 'as far as I know is not for sale' and opined that its rightful place was in a museum. In the meantime he said it was hoped to exhibit the work internationally from 2013, particularly in China.

Curiously there was no mention at the press conference of the fact that the work was shown at three venues in Japan (Shizuoka, Fukuoka and Tokyo) in 2011-12, as part of an exhibition entitled Leonardo and the Idea of Beauty, co-organized by Alessandro Vezzosi. Instead, when quizzed about the work's value, Foundation Vice-President David Feldman said it was not known how much the consortium had paid to acquire it, and its value would only be known when the painting was assessed for insurance purposes before future exhibitions.

'Transparency and facts are at the core of what the Foundation has discovered so far' added Feldman, an auctioneer and philately specialist from Dublin. He was indignant that 'some experts who have never seen the painting call it a copy. We absolutely refute that. There are a dozen reasons why it's an original. There is no known painting proven to be earlier than this one with the same characteristics.'

Feldman claimed the Leonardo attribution was based on 'an accumulation of interlocking reasons,' a phrase taken from Martin Kemp's book La Bella Principessa, written about the recently discovered Leonardo portrait of Bianca Sforza. Kemp, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Oxford University and a man whose reputation in the Leonardo field matches Pedretti's, was a notable absentee from the press conference, preferring to release a statement that dismissed the work's claims to be a Leonardo. 'Infrared reflectography and X-rays point very strongly to its not being by Leonardo' he declared, scorning claims it had been painted a decade earlier than the Louvre's Mona Lisa. 'The Isleworth picture follows the final state of the Louvre painting' he affirmed. 'It does not therefore precede the Louvre painting [and] mistranslates subtle details of the original.'

Although the Foundation tried to downplay Kemp's hostility by assuring the media that he had not seen the painting or even the new book, Kemp stated categorically that he had examined the book.

Peter Silverman, the owner and discoverer of the Leonardo portrait authenticated by Kemp -- and who recounts his struggle to ensure his own work's critical acceptance in The Lost Princess (reviewed in these pages last Spring) -- was 'reluctant to get involved in any polemic' as to whether the consortium's painting might be an earlier Leonardo version of the Louvre's Mona Lisa. He did, however, observe that: 'Visuals don't lie. Just compare the two pictures.'

Although not scrutinized by Kemp in person, the consortium's painting has been closely examined by his colleague Pascal Cotte, the multispectral analysis specialist who co-authored Kemp's ground-breaking book on La Bella Principessa.

The Foundation brought their painting to Cotte's firm Lumiere Technology in Paris in September 2010, but only a short summary of his report was presented in Feldman's book -- ending with the hardly conclusive assertion that 'Mr Cotte confirms that the scientific analysis undertaken with the Lumiere Technology multispectral camera fails to show any result that could indicate that the Earlier Version was not by Leonardo.'

Feldman's book, by dint of some tendentiously juxtaposed phrasing, implied that, because Cotte had remarked 'numerous times that the hands are extraordinarily beautiful,' thought the painting 'a Leonardo masterwork.' Cotte says he neither thought or asserted any such thing, and boycotted the press conference. Meanwhile Lumiere posted a statement on their website homepage distancing themselves from Feldman's book, which they termed 'ambiguous' and 'flashy,' and complaining that their permission had not been sought for Cotte to be quoted. Lumiere also indicated -- citing the French legal code -- that the confidentiality agreement they had signed with the Foundation before analyzing the work was null and void if their clients misrepresented their findings and 'interpreted them in their favor to defend their own theories.'

Whatever the convictions of its Board members -- whose enthusiasm can scarcely be doubted -- the Mona Lisa Foundation will have its work cut out to persuade a skeptical art world that the Isleworth Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci; pre-dates the Louvre version; or even, in terms of artistic accomplishment, bears comparison with the newly rediscovered studio copy of the Mona Lisa in the Prado. Perhaps the best the 'Earlier Mona Lisa' can hope for is a career to match that of the Hahns' version of Leonardo's La Belle Ferronnière (also in the Louvre), which enjoyed a brief spell in the media spotlight back in the 1920s before returning to oblivion, finally selling at Sotheby's New York in 2010 for an indeterminate $1.5m.