In February of 1997, a portrait by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt went missing from Galleria d’arte moderna Ricci Oddi in Italy, and now 23 years later, the high-profile case is finally coming to a close. The work in question, Portrait of a Lady, thought to be painted between 1916 and 1917 and worth $66 million, was discovered in December on the property from where it was stolen, and today, after weeks of careful authentication, has been identified as the original work.
“It’s with no small emotion that I can tell you the work is authentic,” remarked Piacenza prosecutor Ornella Chicca in a statement to the press this morning, as two guards stood on either side of the portrait. While two gardeners were clearing ivy from the building on December 10, they discovered a small metal panel, that, when opened, revealed the painting inside of a black plastic garbage bag. Before it had been returned, Portrait of a Lady was said to be one of the most sought-after stolen works in the world, alongside Caravaggio’s Nativity With St. Francis and St. Lawrence. Since its discovery last month, the work has been stored at a local bank while authorities tested it with infrared radiation and other noninvasive techniques.
These techniques were used on the painting a few decades back, when, prior to the theft, an 18-year-old art student noticed a striking similarity between the portrait and another painting by Klimt. Experts were intrigued, and used the technology to reveal that the artist had painted another work on the canvas beneath Portrait of a Lady. The increased media attention at the time surrounding the work is what led thieves to snatch the painting.
A view of Galleria d’arte moderna Ricci Oddi.
But in an interesting turn of events, it appears that the work was actually quietly stolen in November 1996, not in February 1997, as was originally reported. In 2016 a well-known thief agreed to speak with the BBC, and revealed that, with the assistance of a gallery employee, he easily stole the original and replaced it with a fake. No one noticed, until they stole the duplicate in February to hide the fact that it was a copy. An exhibition surrounding the work had been planned, and had it taken place, Klimt scholars flocking to the show would have spotted the fake, thus landing the accomplice at the gallery in hot water.
When experts got hold of the painting last month, they were surprised to see that it was in remarkably good condition, save for a small scratch from where it was removed from its frame. While the identity of the thief remains unknown, the gallery is pleased to be reunited with the Klimt work at long last.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest