Guilty Thieves Explain Why They Gave Back Klimt’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’

Barbie Latza Nadeau
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Gustav Klimt

ROME—When journalist Ermanno Mariani received a phone call last week from a man purporting to be one of the thieves who stole Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady” from the Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery in the Italian city of Piacenza in 1997, he was understandably skeptical. The journalist had covered the case of the missing painting for years, chasing various leads that took him from the black market of stolen masterpieces to the underworld of devil worship and sorcerers. Twice he had interviewed men he believed to be involved in the burglary, but both times he failed to prove a connection.

Mariani had all but given up on the case when the painting, worth more than $65 million, resurfaced in early December after a gardener peeled back some musty ivy from the museum wall and found it wrapped in a garbage bag and hidden in a secret alcove. The obvious question was whether it had been there the whole 23 years or had recently been stuffed into the secret compartment. The answer would soon come, but first conservationists had to confirm its authenticity. 

Mariani published a book last year about the painting’s unusual past. “Portrait of a Lady” was actually a double portrait of sorts; in 1996 an art student accidentally discovered that it was actually an overpainting of Klimt’s long-lost “Portrait of a Young Lady.” The original painting, which is reported to have depicted a lover of the Venetian painter who died suddenly, had disappeared in 1917, the year before the new work was completed. Klimt is thought to have painted over her quickly to erase the painful memory. 

The new painting disappeared just as the museum was preparing an exhibit to showcase the newfound history of the masterpiece. But days before the exhibit was to open in February 1997, “Portrait of a Lady” disappeared, likely lifted through a skylight with strong fishing wire, which mirrored other art thefts in Italy at the time. Mariani says his book was his final homage to the work that he assumed had been destroyed or sold and in the possession of a private collector. “I was sure it would never be found,” he told The Daily Beast. “And when it was, I felt like I had found a long lost relative.”

Last Friday, when art historians confirmed its authenticity through X-rays to see if the original painting was there, Mariani got the curious call, and the voice was oddly familiar. The man on the phone said he was the person Mariani had previously interviewed about the theft. Mariani also received a letter claiming, “We are the authors of the theft of Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady, and we have given a gift to the city by returning the canvas.” He turned the letter, written in large block writing, over to police. 

The thief and his companion—who have not been named and are facing final sentencing for a separate burglary—said they returned the stolen painting to the museum’s secret alcove four years ago, after the statute of limitations had expired for the theft. They had been waiting for someone to find it and were ready to start dropping hints when the gardeners discovered it in December during winter pruning. There is some speculation—yet unproven—that the gardeners had indeed been tipped off.

Now the thieves are hoping that their “generosity” in returning the stolen work, which they say through their lawyer is a “gift to the city,” will buy them lenience on further crimes. Their lawyer, Guido Gulieri, told The Daily Beast that they returned the painting four years ago, but gave scant details. “They had confessed to this crime on numerous occasions, but no one ever believed them,” he said. “They have even given an address where the painting had been kept all those years.” Police confirmed to the The Daily Beast that they are investigating a private address related to the crime.

Klimt’s double masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady” was listed as the second most important of more than 1 million stolen artworks categorized in Italy’s cultural theft database. The first on the list is Caravaggio’s “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence” which was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969. 

“Portrait of a Lady” was completed in 1918—the year before Klimt died—and sold in 1925 to Italian art collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi, for whom the gallery from which it was stolen is named. 

As for what happens now to the painting with the mysterious history, the museum’s president, Massimo Ferrari, says they have been contacted by movie producers and book authors who want to adapt the tale of the incredible double portrait, heist, and recovery. Ferrari says that they will likely lend the painting to major museums across Italy to keep the fascinating story alive and perhaps inspire other thieves to return stolen works. He says they will also build a special space in the gallery for a permanent exhibition—but this time likely with full time guards and no skylight. 

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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