Italian Egyptologist and museum curator Luigi Vassalli claimed to have discovered the “Meidum Geese” in a tomb belonging to Nefermaat, son of the 4th-dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Snefru, who ruled Egypt from 2610-2590 B.C. More specifically, he claimed to have found it in a chamber dedicated to Nefermaat’s wife, Atet (or Itet). Painted on plaster, “Meidum Geese” depicts three pairs of geese—six in total—with three turned to the left and three turned to the right; it has been celebrated for its symmetry, high quality and level of detail. Some scholars have even gone so far as to call it the ancient equivalent of Leonardo DaVinci’s Renaissance masterpiece, “Mona Lisa”.

Now Francesco Tiradritti, a professor at the Kore University of Enna who serves as director of the Italian archaeological mission to Egypt, has dropped a bombshell: He believes “Meidum Geese” was most likely painted not during the 4th dynasty of ancient Egypt, but in the 19th century—probably by Vassalli himself. Tiradritti spent months studying the painting—both in person and through high-resolution photographs—and says he has finally concluded “there are few doubts on the falsification of the ‘Meidum Geese.’”

In a summary of his finds sent to LiveScience ahead of their publication in the specialty art journals Giornale dell’Arte (in Italian) and The Art Newspaper (in English), Tiradritti wrote that doubting the painting’s authenticity was “a mentally painful process.” First off, he points to the fact that two of the geese depicted in the painting—the bean goose (Anser fabalis) and the red-breasted geese (Branta ruficolis)—breed in tundra-like climates, and would not have been likely to have flown as far south as Egypt. That in itself was not enough to prove the painting’s inauthenticity, Tiradritti concedes, but it raised a red flag.

Once Tiradritti looked closer, he began seeing problems everywhere. Some of the colors in the painting (including beige) are completely missing from the work of other ancient Egyptian artists, while the shades of such common hues as red and orange aren’t at all comparable with those used in other paintings found in Atet’s chapel. The painting’s famous symmetry also posed another problem: Ancient Egyptian artists tended to paint different features (such as people or animals) in the same work in different sizes, in order to emphasize their relative importance. On the other hand, the careful symmetry of “Meidum Geese,” Tiradritti claims, is commonly found among more modern works of art.

Tiradritti examined the cracks in the plaster of the painting as well, and found that they “are not compatible with the supposed ripping of the painting from the wall.” Finally, he saw hints that “Meidum Geese” was painted over another work, including spots where the original cream background shows through the blue-gray background of the later work.

Now, Tiradritti suggests, a more thorough, but still non-invasive scan of the painting should be conducted in order to determine what lies beneath. According to him, the most likely culprit of the forgery was definitely Vassalli, who worked as a curator at a Cairo museum but was an accomplished painter himself, having studied in Milan. Vassalli liked to write about his other discoveries in Egypt, but he made no mention of the “Meidum Geese” in his papers, Tiradritti points out, which according to him “can be taken as a proof ‘ab silentio,’ given the fact that he used to mention his exploits even years after he made them.”

Tiradritti hopes his findings, already causing an uproar among Eyptologists and art historians alike, will inspire other scholars to take a closer look at ancient art, especially those being sold in today’s market, and not accept such works at face value. As a parting shot, he points out another potential clue of Vassalli’s forgery, which he noticed while examining the fragment of another painting the Egyptologist supposedly recovered from the Atet chapel. The fragment depicts a vulture and a basket, signs that in Egypt’s hieroglyphic language represent the letters “A” and “G” respectively—possibly the monogram of Vassalli’s second wife, Gigliati Angiola.