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This oil-on-canvas painting of noblewoman Isabella D’Este was seized in Switzerland.

Associated Press

Assertions that an eminent scholar had authenticated a portrait by Leonardo da Vinci tantalized art lovers with the prospect of a new masterpiece and inflated a backroom bidding war worth tens of millions of euros.

Only Carlo Pedretti, long-time director of the Leonardo centre at the University of California, Los Angeles, said Wednesday that he drew no such conclusion.

"I never attributed this painting to Leonardo," Pedretti told The Associated Press by telephone from Tuscany. "I only said it merited more study."

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The oil-on-canvas painting of noblewoman Isabella D'Este was seized this week in Switzerland under an Italian probe into whether the painting had been illegally expatriated. Financial police said in a release announcing the seizure on Tuesday that the work had been attributed to Leonardo by Pedretti – an assertion also made in an Italian magazine cover story in 2013 that tantalized Leonardo admirers with the possibility of a new masterpiece.

Police also noted that the work's market value had been driven up from a starting price of 95 million euros when they first discovered the painting's existence in 2013, to 120 million euros when they finally located it in the vault of a private Swiss bank last summer.

Pedretti said he viewed the painting several years ago in Switzerland after being contacted by a lawyer representing the owners. He wrote a letter expressing promising elements, including the treatment of the noblewoman's face, but recommending that they pursue further tests without publicizing the find.

"It is mistaken to say I recognized the work. I recognized it as a document important for the study of Leonardo, as a scholar," Pedretti said.

Pedretti is convinced the painting is old, and quite likely from Leonardo's lifetime, with some details like a palm frond and wheel clearly added much later, adorning the noblewoman in symbols of St. Catherine. But he said that before making a declaration of authenticity, "I would want to consult with my colleagues in England, France and the United States. That would be the correct procedure."

Alessandro Vezzosi, director of a museum dedicated to Leonardo in his hometown of Vinci, said Pedretti's name has been falsely associated with a claim he never made – which has demonstrably driven a bidding war.

"There is a substantial difference between tens of thousands and tens of millions of euros," he said.

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While Vezzosi said he doesn't see Leonardo's hand in the work, it is possible "that underneath there are surprises, perhaps a drawing by Leonardo."

A drawing in the Louvre of Isabella D'Este demonstrates Leonardo's association with the portrait's subject. And Pedretti doesn't rule out that Leonardo may have contributed to the portrait, but said even if Leonardo began the work, it was likely to have been finished by a student.

"Leonardo was very interested in his personal research and studies in mechanics and physics. He didn't have time to stay and work on a painting," Pedretti said.

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