By Tony Aiello

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A 100-year-old church in New Rochelle housed a 400-year-old treasure and no one realized it until a man stopped to worship, and looked up.

“It immediately caught my eye, and I knew it was a 17th century Italian painting. And that’s when I began the investigation,” said Tom Ruggio.

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Ruggio is a professor of art and art history at Iona College. It didn’t take long for him to pinpoint the painting of the Holy Family with infant St. John the Baptist as the work of Cesare Dandini, an Italian master of the Baroque style.

“Now this painting was thought to be missing, because it was referred to in documentation in the Metropolitan Museum’s archives,” Ruggio said.

For 60 years or so, the art world had no idea the missing painting resided at Holy Family Church.

“I thought it was shocking to see here in New Rochelle,” Ruggio said.

The church believes a donor gave a former pastor funds to purchase it in Rome in the 1960s.

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The Dandini is temporarily on display at Iona, hung up high, as the artist intended. You can tell by the way he positioned the Virgin Mary’s foot.

“The Virgin Mary’s foot is raised and you can see the bottom of it. In Italian, that’s called ‘di sotto in su,’ and that means roughly ‘to look at it from below, upwards,'” Ruggio said.

They authenticated the painting by comparing it with known works by Dandini in the collections of the Hermitage museum in Russia and the Met in New York City.

It may have been painted in Florence in the 1630s, perhaps a commission from the Medici family.

An obvious question: What is this painting worth?

“I think that’s for the market to determine,” Ruggio said.

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The record price for a Dandini is around $800,000. It is a treasure in more ways than one.

The current pastor at Holy Family told CBS2 the painting will be on display at Iona College through the end of the year.
The parish is working on a plan to secure and protect the painting once it is returned to the church.

Tony Aiello