WASHINGTON - Last spring, a visiting museum director from Scotland was rummaging through a storeroom of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt collection in New York when he turned to a box full of lighting-fixture sketches by unknown Italian artists.
One unsigned drawing of an enormous branched candelabrum, possibly a menorah, struck the visitor as special. Tuesday, the Smithsonian confirmed his judgment. According to an international panel of Renaissance art scholars, the drawing is the work of the great Italian sculptor and artist Michelangelo. It is probably worth around $12 million.
The Cooper-Hewitt unwittingly acquired the Michelangelo sketch when it purchased a group of five drawings in 1942 for $60.
"To find a new drawing by Michelangelo is very exciting," said the discoverer, National Galleries of Scotland director Timothy Clifford. "But to find a drawing by him of a menorah, and, moreover, in New York, is almost incredible."
George Goldner, drawings curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: "The attribution is absolutely right. It's not a little fragment or scrap, either. It's a good, important drawing, which any museum would be happy to have, a wonderful discovery, a great thing."
Michael Hirst and Paul Joannides, prominent Michelangelo scholars in Britain, were shown the drawing and approved of the attribution, too, according to Clifford and Cooper-Hewitt officials who were present when those experts reviewed the work.
Clifford, a noted specialist in Italian decorative art, had been invited by museum director Paul Warwick Thompson to spend a sabbatical looking at the Cooper-Hewitt's Italian collection
"Timothy Clifford has an unerring eye in this field," said a rather excited Thompson after Tuesday's announcement. "We always knew that the Cooper-Hewitt possessed one of the finest collections of drawings and prints in the United States ... but to discover a Michelangelo amidst such treasures is really gilding on the lily.
"To be one of only six public institutions in the United States to hold a work of Michelangelo is really extraordinary. And the manner in which the drawing was discovered is straight out of a children's story book."
The drawing is of a very beautiful and elaborate fixture decreasing in diameter as it rises in stages from a thick base. Measuring about 17 inches by 10 inches, it was sketched on lined, cream-colored paper with black chalk, brushwork and brown wash. It is thought to have been done between 1530 and 1540 and is in pristine condition.
The work was spotted by Clifford as he sifted through a box in the museum's newly opened Drue Heinz Study Center for Drawings and Prints, a repository of European and American design. The distinctive style of the drawing immediately led him to suspect that it was by Michelangelo.
"He's an Italian Renaissance scholar, and he said he wanted to look at all our drawings from the Italian Renaissance period. We said, `All? We've got hundreds of boxes,'" Thompson said.
"After he'd been here for about two weeks, and God knows how many boxes he'd been through, he opened a box simply labeled `Lighting fixtures.' He brought out a drawing and said, `My goodness, this is a Michelangelo!'"
Because Michelangelo executed few drawings of decorative objects, museum scholars long thought the drawing was by a contemporary.
It has been unanimously authenticated by Italian Renaissance art scholars and is one of fewer than 10 Michelangelos known to be in the United States, according to Thompson.
"The recognition of this drawing as a work by Michelangelo is important both for our understanding of the artist's body of work and of the history of design," said Sarah Lawrence, director of the museum's Masters Program in the History of Decorative Arts.
Clifford speculated Michelangelo Buonarroti, creator of the Sistine Chapel frescoes among other magnificent works of art, may have produced the drawing as part of his commission for the powerful Medici family's funeral chapel, monuments and tombs in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence.
Some thought the sketch might be by Perino del Vaga, a Renaissance artist who specialized in such works.
Clifford thought otherwise.
"I've made many discoveries, but this tops them all," Clifford, 60, said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Italy, where he was traveling.
Though most of the Smithsonian's 16 museums and galleries are in Washington, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Institution's National Museum of the American Indian are in New York City.
The last such discovery of a Michelangelo drawing was at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976, when a previously unidentified work purchased in 1962 was re-examined.
Michael Kilian writes for the Chicago Tribune. Wire services contributed to this article.