Dianne Dwyer Modestini was sure she had a masterpiece on her hands.
Shortly after beginning a meticulous, six-year restoration process in 2005, she and her husband, the late art restorer Mario Modestini, were "100 percent convinced" the painting they had been asked to restore was the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
Her colleagues agreed, and last year, the painting was sold at Christie's auction house to a Saudi Prince for $450 million -- a record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.
The painting, long thought to be either lost to history or never completed, is Leonardo's "Salvator Mundi," a portrait of Jesus Christ into which many of the Renaissance master's ideas about the universe, about grace and about human endeavor seemed to be concentrated. It was much-copied by subsequent generations of painters, making attribution difficult if not impossible.
But Modestini, who earned her master's degree in art conservation from a program in Cooperstown that later became part of SUNY Buffalo State, had no doubts about the painting's creator. She will speak about the discovery and her work as an internationally renowned art conservator at 1:30 p.m. April 9 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
"We were completely convinced and we felt that we could justify this to anyone without sounding like idiots," Modestini said. What made her so sure, she added, was not the discovery of any single clue attributable to the master's style or any technical element of the painting that could be traced to his hand, but rather the quality of the painting.
"It didn't show us an under-drawing for example, that was Leonardo's drawing style, or anything like that. The pigments are the pigments that any one of his contemporaries could have used, and did," Modestini said. "But the quality of the painting, the sort of old-fashioned connoisseurship and skills, which art historians have always used to make an attribution, were in the end the telling factor for us.
What struck her, she added, was "the quality of the transitions of the handling, the general expression of the artist, the fact that every painting is actually not just an exercise, it's actually a piece of the artist's mind, especially if it's an original composition. It was those aspects that convinced us."
As anyone who has followed Tonawanda man Martin Kober's frustrated attempts to attribute a painting he owns to Michelangelo, claiming you have a masterpiece on your hands can be a nerve-wracking experience.
"Normally people look at you as if you're crazy and assume that you're either a charlatan or you just don't know what you're doing," Modestini said. "If you have a professional reputation to maintain, you don't want to be forever remembered as the person who was bringing around that awful picture and claiming it was by Leonardo."
For Modestini, who even before her star-making attribution was considered one of the best working art conservators in the world, there now seems little chance of that happening.
Though the attribution is disputed by some art historians, the majority of Leonardo experts have signed on to what Modestini seemed to know intuitively as far back as 2006: That the painting is one of the few existing works of one of the greatest artists ever to put brush to panel.