If you really want to make my day, give me a good mystery to chew on. I grew up glued to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe, and my complete collection of illustrated Sherlock Holmes adventures is the absolute first thing I would save in a dorm fire (no hard feelings, “Beowulf”).

While imaginary detectives and fictitious crimes make for riveting novellas and films, a true mystery lover knows that nothing would be cooler than to stumble across an actual whodunit. And for those of us who enjoy the works of Cézanne as much as the discoveries of Dupin, the art world continues to provide an endless supply of real-life riddles that would have surely piqued even the most seasoned detective’s interest.

Case in point: the recent “rediscovery” of a 500-year-old portrait of a young Milanese girl whom art historians have creatively dubbed Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress. It surfaced at Christie’s auction house in 1998 and, despite its unknown authorship, sold for nearly $19,000.

But specialists from around the world began to question the origins of the diminutive 9×13 chalk-and-ink picture not long after it was bought, after it was suggested to be a long-lost work of none other than Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. A confirmation of his authorship would have launched its value to upwards of a whopping $160 million.

The facts were few. The stakes were high. The game was afoot.

Historians have spent countless hours examining each square inch of the portrait, from its distinct left-handed hatching to a small fingerprint smudge that appears in its upper corner — and their use of X-ray, chemical and fingerprint analysis is not unlike the process we see each night on TV crime shows. A “Monk”-like attention to detail is key. Every hairline crack could be proof of its authenticity; every miniscule repair could be evidence of a forgery.

The efforts of these experts have tentatively identified the girl as Bianca Sfrorza, the daughter of a duke in whose court Leonardo did indeed work. However, back then imitation was indeed the highest form of flattery, and the possibility exists that the portrait was done by a well-intentioned apprentice wishing to simply emulate the techniques of a master, making this case of missing identity that much more difficult to solve.

With the truth about her creator shrouded in the pages of her cloudy history, it seems this Italian beauty won’t give up her secrets without a good fight.

But seeking out artist identities and historical context is only part of the job for the art world’s greatest detectives. Sometimes, art and crime meet in a head-on collision when the very whereabouts of a piece of art become a mystery.

Museums rarely have the security to match the sheer volume of priceless works they hold, and because of this some of history’s most famous heists have involved art theft. Mona Lisa herself was stolen in 1911 by a Louvre employee who simply hid it under his coat and strolled past the museum’s guard station after hours. Various paintings by Vermeer, Munch, Renoir, Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Degas have also been plundered from cities all over the globe, and the realization that some of them have never been successfully recovered is absolutely maddening.

Even the University’s own collection has been the target of thieves in the past. Sketches by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore, which were part of a University-organized traveling exhibit, were stolen in 1967. Only a combined effort by the FBI, UMMA and DPS eventually led to the recovery of the pieces after nearly 30 years of searching.

Though there was no case that Sherlock Holmes couldn’t solve, it’s a frustrating truth that some real-life crimes simply lack the necessary evidence to be solved and some artistic mysteries may very well remain mysteries forever. Only a fraction of art pieces stolen are ever recovered and, just like missing persons, become increasingly difficult to track down the longer they’ve been gone. Some thieves destroy the works they’ve stolen (NOOOOOO) after realizing that their steal may be so iconic that searching for a buyer could very well get them arrested, and some, accidentally or intentionally, take the secrets of their thefts to their graves.

Even the mystery surrounding the Young Girl in Profile may never come to a true close. As historians argue over the specifics of what little evidence they’ve worked hard to dig up, their results have produced only theories, accusations and even more questions. Until more proof can be found, her authorship comes down to a matter of professional opinion.

Without the help of a mystery author’s pen and fictional P.I., real-life investigators must simply continue to hunt indefinitely for that case-breaking clue or key confession. But while imaginary detectives must count on their author’s creativity for their next big adventure, the art world will no doubt continue to provide its fans with perplexing and fascinating mysteries.

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