02/19/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
PROFESSOR KATHLEEN WEIL-GARRIS Brandt was having a Woody Allen moment on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. She'd been sloshing her way home from work that rainy, miserable October night. As she passed the elegant turn-of-the-century mansion that houses the French embassy's cultural services, she saw a party going on inside. "I was feeling very sorry for myself," she says. "I pressed my nose against the glass door."
Well-dressed guests holding fine crystal mingled around a marble fountain topped by a three-foot cupid, just inside the front door. Brandt, 61, had passed this entry for 30 years on her way to her office at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, just around the corner. But suddenly, under the bright lights of the reception, she saw something familiar. She had seen the heretofore nondescript little statue before—in a 1902 catalog for Christie's, billed as one of the rarest of artworks: a genuine Michelangelo.
The sight set Brandt's heart to racing. "Imagine finding a Michelangelo," she says. "Imagine finding it in America. Then imagine finding it in the house next door." Aware that careers have been ruined by dramatic finds that turned out to be false, Brandt, who is also the consultant for Renaissance art to the Vatican Museums, proceeded cautiously. With the permission of the French cultural attaché, she later studied the statue carefully—and became convinced that it was the real thing. Among the telltale signs: Cupid's quiver, shaped like a lion's paw, embodies a typically inventive quirk of the artist. "It looked like a work of the teenage Michelangelo," she concluded. While at least one Renaissance scholar faults Brandt for having gone public before publishing in a scholarly journal, most have already lined up behind her.
Fifth Avenue's newest treasure is likely to remain in the mansion designed by Stanford White, who found the cupid in an antiques store in Rome. The French government, which bought the building in the 1950s, has no plans to move Cupid, although the priceless little god of love may someday make a flying visit to the Louvre. Brandt, who sees it every day on her way to work, has no doubts about where it belongs. "It's ideal right where it is," she says.