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Rumors abound that new Leonardo da Vinci painting has been found in Boston

His paintings brought him the most renown, few as they are. Among them: the instantly recognizable "Mona Lisa," two "Virgin of the Rocks," a "St. Jerome in the Wilderness," an "Adoration of the Magi" -- works without precedent for their innovative varnishing and binding techniques, their perfect replication of muscle, bone and human expression, their delicate tones.

His meticulousness is one reason for the low production -- but so was his drive to innovate. "He was not interested in the practical matters of completing a job," says Nagel. "He was interested in doing things that had never been done before."

It was a huge deal when the National Gallery landed its da Vinci oil, titled "Ginevra de' Benci." It was purchased in 1967 for $5 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work of art. When J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery's director, got his hands on it, his counterpart and archrival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, "was beside himself," The Post's Matt Schudel reported after Hoving's death earlier this month.

"I still wake up occasionally at 3 in the morning and say, 'We should have gotten that!' " Hoving said. "When I'm an old man, I'll be muttering, 'Leonardo,' and people in the nursing home will say, 'How sad, he thinks he's Leonardo.' "

The fact is, where da Vinci is concerned, hype and art have become inextricably entwined. "It would change the fortunes of the MFA if they had a real Leonardo," says Nagel, the art history professor. " . . . If you can make this definitely a work by Leonardo, a lot of money is going to be changing hands. When that's the dominant concern, there's great pressure to want something to be the real thing."

A da Vinci discovery made news in October, when a drawing thought to be that of an unknown 19th-century German artist was attributed to the Italian master, and valued at more than $150 million. But doubts remain among some experts about its authenticity, which rested in part on a fingerprint.

Stamping any new finding as definitively da Vinci's -- he was, after all, one of the world's most copied artists -- would be exceedingly difficult, says John Brewer, author of "The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Money."

"We all have this fantasy that we've gotten better and better at authenticating," he says. But the new technologies -- forensics, infrared imaging and so forth -- "will only tell you whether it's not by someone. Scientific technology is good at spotting bad fakes. But to be able to say yes as opposed to saying no, that depends on the cultured eye of the expert. And that's intuitive."

For the man whose incomprehensible gifts unleashed frauds, endless speculation and churning thrillers into the modern era, mystery seems fated to be part of his story.

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