A Winnetka man spent decades trying to prove he owned a Renaissance masterpiece. Can AI solve the case?

Tony Ayers died last year, but his friends now say they have proof the artwork is a rare gem worth tens of millions of dollars — thanks to artificial intelligence.

SHARE A Winnetka man spent decades trying to prove he owned a Renaissance masterpiece. Can AI solve the case?
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Philippe Farcy (from left) and Ari Cohen are continuing the quest of their deceased friend Tony Ayers to prove their painting is the work of Italian Renaissance master Raphael. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere, Chicago Sun-Times.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Tony Ayers was wandering through one of the honey-stone villages in the English Cotswolds when he stepped into an antiques shop and saw something that took his breath away.

It was 1995, and Ayers, who lived in Winnetka, was on vacation with his wife. Inside the shop, Ayers took a passing interest in an armoire. The antiques dealer eased the piece out of the shadows, and that’s when Ayers saw it: Behind the armoire was a painting coated in dust, paint flaking, its true beauty hidden beneath layers of grime. Even so, Ayers, an amateur artist, was sure he’d found a masterpiece.

He tried to hide his excitement. He didn’t make an offer just then.

When he returned home, he told his business partner that what he’d seen — a portrait of a Madonna and child — looked like the work of one of the great Renaissance masters.

Ayers, his business partner and friend Philippe Farcy and their landlord Ari Cohen pooled their money to buy the painting for $25,000 — setting in motion a Sherlock Holmes-like quest to prove they had a work by one of the titans of the early 1500s: Raphael.

Or, as one art historian put it, it was an obsession worthy of Captain Ahab searching for Moby Dick. With tens of millions of dollars potentially at stake, Cohen and Farcy — Ayers died last year of complications from Alzheimer’s disease — went public for the first time earlier this year. They say artificial intelligence that was used to examine the painting’s brushstrokes has finally given them the proof they need.

“We have science behind us,” said Farcy, one of the painting’s 40 investors, most of them from Chicago. “We have experts behind us. It took us 30 years to build a case.”

That new science isn’t widely accepted in the old art world, but it should be, said Carina Popovici, founder and CEO of Art Recognition, the AI firm Farcy, Cohen and other investors hired to examine their painting.

“Through brushstroke artificial intelligence, we offer objectivity and accessibility to clients, which has been missing in the field of art evaluation for many years,” Popovici said. “Art history, provenance, chemical analysis and other methods are all critical to the full understanding of an artwork, but attribution decisions should not be left solely to the subjective human expert’s eye.”

Tony Ayers with the “Flaget Madonna” before it had been restored. At first, Ayers was sure it was a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

Tony Ayers with the “Flaget Madonna” before it had been restored. At first, Ayers thought it might be a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

Provided

A modern-day Renaissance man makes a case

Ayers, like his hero Leonardo da Vinci, was a man of many talents: Driven, he was an inventor, artist, architect and a builder of custom cabinets.

He grew up in west suburban Elmhurst. He never had any children. He was in the U.S. Air Force, based in England; while there, he did pen-and-ink drawings of country manor homes and “edgy posters,” said his widow, Dawn Turco. In 2016, some of his sketches went on display at the Banbury Museum & Gallery, about 80 miles northwest of London.

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One of Ayers’ “edgy” posters. Some of Ayers’ sketches were part of an exhibition in Banbury, England, in 2016. | Photo provided by Chris Prescott.

“Tony did nothing by half measures,” Turco said. “He was unendingly creative. He was brilliant, and he saw what I was unable to see.”

Two days after returning from his England vacation, Ayers told Farcy, “I think I’ve found something really interesting and really good.”

At first, Ayers said he thought the painting was a da Vinci, and he wanted help buying it.

But Farcy wasn’t an art expert. Neither was Cohen, whose family owns a steel sheeting business in a building on South Kedzie Avenue where Farcy and Ayers ran a furniture-making studio.

Still, Ayers’ enthusiasm was infectious. When Cohen heard him talking about da Vinci and saw a photograph of the painting, his “gambler mentality” took hold.

“I really didn’t know the difference between Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh,” Cohen said. “I immediately said, ‘I’m in.’”

About three months later, Ayers returned to England. This time, he faked a greater interest in the armoire to avoid tipping off the antiques dealer, who’d said he knew that the painting was a “good piece” but didn’t have the time to research who might have painted it, Farcy said. When they couldn’t agree on a price for the armoire, Ayers said he’d take the painting instead.

The dealer told him he’d bought the painting in Kentucky and it had hung in a convent there. The convent’s notes on the painting say it arrived from Europe between 1791 and 1811, according to the convent’s archives director.

Ayers, Cohen and Farcy now owned a very old picture painted on wood of the Madonna with a plump baby Jesus on her lap, along with John the Baptist and a haggard-looking St. Elizabeth.

Ayers called Larry Silver, then a professor of Renaissance art history at Northwestern University, and told him what he thought he’d found. Silver, now a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, went to Ayers’ house one evening to see the painting. Even in the dim light, he didn’t hesitate.

“It’s not a Leonardo,” Silver told Ayers.

But he told him it might be another of the great Italian Renaissance painters.

“Raphael has a very distinctive way of painting the Virgin Mary — a very sweet kind of face, very similar to the one in this picture,” Silver said.

Raphael: A master artist and a ‘painter’s painter’ who died young

Of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, da Vinci and Michelangelo are perhaps best known today. But in his day, Raphael — who lived from 1483 to 1520 — was just as well-admired.

Raphael was a painter’s painter — someone who was a little bit more understated in his compositions, and someone who embraced a more classic ideal of beauty,” said David Pollack, a specialist in old master paintings at Sotheby’s auction house.

Raphael, one of the great master painters of the Italian Renaissance, died young, at 37.

Raphael, one of the great master painters of the Italian Renaissance, died young, at 37.

Sun-Times file

Unlike da Vinci or Michelangelo, Raphael died young, at 37. Pollack said one well-regarded source puts the total number of works attributed to Raphael at fewer than 100.

The hunt for clues to convince a skeptical art world

Ayers was disappointed he didn’t have a da Vinci. But for him, it was always more about the hunt.

“He was like Sherlock Holmes trying to come up with clues and evidence,” Silver said.

“It’s like finding a dead body from 500 years ago and trying to find who was the killer,” said Farcy, 65, who now lives in New York.

But Silver wasn’t convinced it was indeed a Raphael — and he said it wouldn’t matter to auction houses even if he was.

“They wouldn’t care one way or the other because I’m not one of the narrow circle of Raphael specialists that they care about,” he said.

Trying to understand how a specialist determines whether a Renaissance artwork was painted by a master or by one of his students — or even by a master working with a student — isn’t easy. Often, one expert will lean one way, while another leans another.

Determined to learn their painting’s origin, Ayers, Cohen and Farcy hired experts to remove the old varnish and retouch the original paint surface, to examine the wood beneath the paint and to analyze the pigments.

Early support came from Walter C. McCrone Jr., the Chicago-based chemical analyst who exposed the Shroud of Turin as a fake. McCrone, who died in 2002, said his testing of the pigments showed it was by Raphael.

Marcia B. Hall, a Temple University professor and a scholar of Italian Renaissance painting, said in a letter she wrote for Ayers in 2000 to guide insurance appraisers: “The Madonna and certain of the figures were possibly painted by Raphael; then the painting was left incomplete, to be finished, still in the first quarter of the century, by a follower of Raphael, possibly by Antonio del Ceraiolo.”

Hall declined to talk to a Sun-Times reporter about the painting.

Karen Thomas, an art conservator in New York, worked on the painting in 2019.

“Everything seems right for that time period,” she said. “The wood panel seems correct. ... The way the paint is applied and the aged appearance of the paint all seems correct for the time period.”

Karen Thomas, an art conservator in New York, restored Ayers’ painting in 2019. Thomas said the work appeared to be from the early 1500s.

Karen Thomas, an art conservator in New York, restored Ayers’ painting in 2019. Thomas said the work appeared to be from the early 1500s.

Provided

Ayers devoted himself to the quest, “buying every single book that there was — rare books,” Cohen said. “At that time, he would download so much information, we were buying him computers every three months.”

Ayers had a sympathetic wife in Turco.

“I am not one for standing in the way of someone else’s passion,” she said.

Ayers traveled to Kentucky. Farcy said the convent nuns told him the painting was brought to America by Bishop Benedict Flaget, one of the founders of their diocese, who was born in France, although records don’t confirm who brought it, an archivist told the Sun-Times. The painting has since become known as the Flaget Madonna.

Ayers and Turco flew to Rome, where she says they were taken to a private area of the Vatican to meet with the city-state’s museums curator to discuss research on the painting.

An art expert from Rome later traveled to Chicago to take paint samples.

“That was huge,” Cohen said.

According to Cohen and Farcy, they were told the painting had been part of a private papal collection. The Vatican wanted it back but wasn’t willing to pay, Farcy said. The Chicago collectors refused their request.

The big auction houses: It’s not a Raphael

Christie’s, the auction house, agreed to look at the work in 2001. Its auctioneers have handled paintings in recent years including da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” which went for $450 million in 2017, breaking the record for any artwork sold at auction.

Christie’s wouldn’t agree to sell the Chicago collectors’ piece as a Raphael. Instead, it attributed the painting to Ceraiolo, a lesser known Renaissance artist. A Christie’s representative last week declined to talk about the painting.

Sotheby’s examined the painting and came to the same conclusion.

“In this case, this is extremely consistent in its brushwork, in its composition, in its style to a known artist, to a named artist, which is not a small deal,” Pollack said.

A Ceraiolo sold in 2018 at Sotheby’s in London. The $159,000 price tag remains a record for the artist, Pollack said. The auction record for a Raphael, done on paper not wood: $48 million, sold at Christie’s in 2009.

But Ayers refused to accept the Ceraiolo attribution.

More investors joined the hunt, pooling to date about $500,000, Cohen and Farcy said.

X-rays, tree rings and a special set of eyes

In 2011, the group hired a New York firm, then known as Art Analysis and Research, to look at the painting. The firm works like a team of detectives, counting the tree rings on the wood panels to determine their age. X-rays and infrared imaging come into play. They might study the sketching work hidden beneath the layers of paint.

The team found a pigment in the painting used only by Raphael and “apparently a small group” of other artists of the time. But other common Raphael techniques were absent in the Flaget, according to the report.

“If the evidence was definitive that it was a Raphael, we would have said so,” said Nica Rieppi, managing director of the firm, now called Art Discovery. Rieppi said she didn’t personally examine the painting.

The lead detective bows out, artificial intelligence comes on board

Then, in 2015, Ayers was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

“He handed over the reins,” Cohen said. “He knew his condition, and he wanted us to keep on going. And he wanted us to have all the information that he had in his head.”

In 2021, the investors hired a Swiss firm, Art Recognition, which uses computers to analyze brushstrokes. It’s a new technology some art experts say could have an important future in art authentication but is not widely accepted.

To point the finger at Raphael, Art Recognition says it first had to train its AI system. Photographs of more than 100 genuine Raphael paintings were fed into the program, along with those of known fakes and art made by the master’s contemporaries. To capture fine details, the photographs were then broken up into smaller “patches” and squares. The Flaget Madonna was then run through the program.

The result: The faces of the Virgin Mary and child almost certainly were done by him, the program concluded with about 96% certainty for each. But the analysis also found not all of the painting can be attributed to Raphael.

Still, experts have their doubts about relying on AI. In fact, none would comment to the Sun-Times on the new analysis of the Flaget Madonna.

But in general, experts said AI is still just one piece of a huge puzzle.

“You are talking about paintings that are 400 to 500 years old,” said Thomas, who restored the Flaget in 2019. “Every single one of these paintings has gone through different things. It’s not like you are comparing paint surfaces that are fresh out of the studio.”

For now, the painting sits in a bank vault somewhere in the Chicago area; the investors won’t say exactly where.

Ayers died last year at the age of 64. Ayers’ widow, and friends Cohen and Farcy, said they are telling their story now because they believe they finally have the proof they need after years of skepticism from the wider art world.

“Do I believe it is a lost Raphael? Of course I do, but who cares what I think?” his widow said.

Following in the footsteps of Ayers, they have no plans to give up their quest.

“I’m sure that upon reaching heaven after his passing, the first thing Tony did was to seek out Raphael and ask him, ‘So, was it you?’” Ayers’ widow said.

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