The “Flaget Madonna” (all images courtesy Flaget Madonna LLC)

An amateur artist and cabinet maker in the United Kingdom may have discovered an original Raphael — at least according to artificial intelligence. Anthony Ayers bought the “Flaget Madonna” for around $30,000 from a Cotswold antique shop in 1995. If the attribution is confirmed, the painting would reportedly fetch hundreds of millions at auction, according to the Wall Street Journal, as fewer than 200 verified paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist exist. In 2009, Christie’s auctioned a Raphael sketch, “Head of a Muse,” which sold for $48 million.

What initially convinced Ayers to begin funding research into the painting’s origins was its ownership history. According to a provenance report, in 1837, Catholic Bishop Joseph Flaget — after whom the work is named — donated the piece from the Vatican’s collections to an order of nuns founded in Kentucky called Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. In the 1980s, the convent sold the painting to an American antique dealer who brought it to the antique shop in Cotswold, England. Ayers, who spent nearly 30 years studying the “Flaget Madonna,” died earlier this year. His wife controls a 30% ownership share of the painting. 

According to the Switzerland-based company Art Recognition, which claims to use AI technology to “accurately evaluate an artwork’s authenticity,” the brushstrokes in the “Flaget Madonna” matched those in Raphael’s known pieces. Carina Popovici, Art Recognition CEO, told Hyperallergic that software developed by the company examined photographs of Raphael’s paintings to isolate features of the artist’s works and then compared that data with the potential original. The comparison yielded a 96.57% probability of the Madonna’s face and a 96.24% likelihood of the Child’s face being painted by Raphael.

Analysis of the paint and other materials used also point towards the Italian Renaissance master as the Flaget’s possible author. Art and Analysis Research, a London and New York-based company that provides scientific and technical evaluations of visual art, said in a 2015 report commissioned by Ayers that only a few Italian Renaissance artists, including Leonardo and Raphael, used the pigments present in the Madonna and Child purchased by Ayer. 

However, some scholars are not convinced by the research. Karen Thomas, an independent paintings conservator who previously worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked on the artwork in 2019 and told the WSJ last week that she’s cautious about the findings.

“I worry people will see the computer as flawless, but it’s just another tool, not a smoking gun,” Thomas said. (Thomas declined to comment for this article.)

Larry Silver, an art historian and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania who first examined the painting, wrote a letter in July 2000 saying that the “Flaget Madonna” was “possibly painted by Raphael himself, at least in parts of the picture.” In a 1997 paper, now-retired Renaissance art historian Patricia Trutty-Coohill agreed the work seemed to be painted by Raphael, according to the WSJ, as reddened ears were his style. A 2001 summary report by Ayers suggests Raphael may have started the piece, but painter Antonio del Ceraiolo finished it. 

AI’s ability to determine copies versus real artworks has become a part of public conversation in recent months after researchers purportedly used facial recognition technology to attribute another painting to Raphael in January. AI technology developed to identify Nazi criminals in security footage matched the faces of the Madonna and Child faces in the “de Brécy Tondo” to those in Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” (1513–14). Confidence in AI results will be put to the test if the painting is offered for sale, which original investor Ari Cohen told WSJ was a possibility if the work is confirmed as authentic. 

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...

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