Michelangelo Statue 'Found' on Fifth Ave.

A MISSING Michelangelo sculpture has been discovered not in the dusty chambers of some Florentine villa, but across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art - on public display in the lobby of a landmarked building.

The 3-foot statue of a naked, curly-headed boy with a blissful expression and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back has been there since the building was completed in 1908.

But it is only in the past three months that art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt - who happens to work around the corner at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts - identified the sculpture as a Michelangelo.

''It's of monumental importance,'' says Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ''You are dealing with one of the greatest creative geniuses of all time. And there are no other sculptures by Michelangelo in America.''

At a news conference Tuesday, Ms. Brandt recalled walking past the building on Fifth Avenue, which houses cultural offices for the French Embassy, many times before she noticed the lobby brilliantly lighted for a party last October. Peering through the windows, she saw the statue and was astounded. ''It was clear we were dealing not with a garden statue, not an imitation, but an important work,'' she says.

The Metropolitan has expressed interest in authenticating the marble and displaying it at the museum up the street. France may eventually put it in the Louvre, but the embassy's cultural counselor, Denis Delbourg, says it will remain here for now. And passersby will still be able to visit it in the lobby where it was ignored for so long.

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