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$66M Stolen Klimt Painting Found Right at the Gallery it was Stolen From

Ian Harvey
Portrait of a Lady and The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
Portrait of a Lady and The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

A stolen Gustav Klimt painting which had been missing for close to 23 years has remarkably been found on the premises of the gallery it was stolen from. Aside from the risks involved in the act of theft, itself, there’s the added problem that any work of art is unique, and can, therefore, be difficult to move and sell since priceless art pieces are easily identifiable.

It’s not that unusual for stolen pieces to be hidden away after they’ve been stolen, both for the protection of the thieves and in the hope that the painting will be easier to sell after the search has died down.  Many stolen pieces end up being sold to private collectors on the black market and are never seen again. Many people supposed that would be the case with Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady, after its theft in 1997.

Portrait of a Lady Klimt

Portrait of a Lady by Gustav Klimt. Stolen in 1997 and only now recovered.

According to a report by BBC News, the painting was taken on February 22, 1997, from the Ricci-Oddi modern art museum in Italy. The museum was preparing a special exhibition to display it, at the time.  After it was stolen, its frame was found on the gallery’s roof, near a broken skylight.  It’s believed the frame was left there in an attempt to make law enforcement believe that’s how the thieves escaped, but the skylight was too small for the framed portrait to fit through.

Over the course of the ensuing 23 years, there’s been no hint of the painting’s location, until now. Recently, a gardener was removing ivy from the walls of the gallery where the theft took place when he found a metal panel.  The panel covered a recess in the wall, which held a black bag.  In turn, the bag appeared to be holding the missing Klimt. It is thought that the thief hid the work there in the gallery garden in order to wait for the investigation and uproar to die down and return for it later. Apparently the thief was never able to return for it.

stolen Klimt painting

The painting was found here. Photo: RAI TV

Experts are still working to determine whether the painting is the real article, or a counterfeit, but the gallery’s director, Massimo Ferrari, feel confident that the painting is genuine.  He’s basing that opinion on the fact that the painting has the same sealing wax and stamps on the back.

Gen Roberto Riccardi, the lead of the carabinieri unit responsible for protecting cultural heritage, says it’s best to be cautious until the work’s authenticity has been determined. Now a team of experts will do both artistic and scientific analyses to figure out if the painting is the original, and if it truly spent the last couple of decades stashed in the hole in the gallery wall.

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt in 1908

Klimt painted Portrait of a Lady in 1916-17, as he was approaching the end of his life. The Viennese artist was part of a group of artists who were known as the Secession, and he was most well-known for his paintings which showed seductive, evocative and very expressive images of women.

Some of his other most well-known works include The Kiss and Tree of Life.  Prints of these works, as well as other paintings by Klimt, are quite popular and can be found hanging in place ranging from dorm rooms to public spaces.

Portrait of a Lady is considered one of his important works, because it has one unusual characteristic.  A little less than year before the work was stolen, an art student named Claudia Maga made an interesting discovery.  She figured out that Portrait of a Lady had been painted over a different Klimt work, Portrait of a Young Lady, which disappeared in 1912.  She proved her discovery by convincing the then-director of the gallery where the work was being displayed to have it x-rayed.

Related Article: Pablo Picasso’s Electrician Convicted of Hoarding Over 270 of his Artworks

The hidden painting was a portrait of a young girl from Vienna.  It’s supposed that Klimt painted over the original painting as a way of coping with his grief.

The painting stands about five feet tall, and is of a rosy-cheeked woman with an expression that is both melancholy and apathetic. It’s also extremely valuable, having an estimated value of about $66 million.