A Portrait of a Lady by Gustav Klimt was stolen from the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in 1997 and ever since its disappearance, the crime has been full of twists and turns.
This artwork is considered the most-sought after stolen painting in the world, only after Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence and in an amazing twist of fate, it has now resurfaced. Still, no one seems quite sure what happened over two decades ago when it first went missing.
Here, we’re addressing what we know about the apparent crime and how the Klimt Portrait of a Lady saga is unfolding.
About the Painting
Created between 1916 and 1917 by famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, A Portrait of a Lady is an oil on canvas. It was actually a painted-over version of what was previously called A Portrait of a Young Lady that was thought to be lost forever.
The story goes that A Portrait of a Young Lady depicted a woman who Klimt was deeply in love with. But after her swift and untimely death, Klimt was overwhelmed with grief and decided to paint over the original with the face of another woman perhaps in hopes to miss her less.
It’s unclear who the woman in the current portrait portrays but it was done in Klimt’s signature style – both elegant and colorful – using the expressionist style, with hints of impressionist influences. Klimt often painted portraits of beautiful women and A Portrait of a Lady is no exception.
This piece was created at the end of Klimt’s career and represents a gorgeous snapshot of his illustrious portfolio of work. The story behind its disappearance, however, is something entirely different, full of confusion and many unknowns.
What Happened to A Portrait of a Lady?
Twenty-three years ago, almost to the day, on February 22, 1997, Klimt’s A Portrait of a Lady was stolen from the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in the city of Piacenza in Italy. Its frame was found in pieces on the roof of the gallery but the artwork itself was nowhere to be found
In April 1997, a forged version of A Portrait of a Lady was found by Italian police on the French border in a package addressed to former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. There was speculation that it was connected with the theft at the Ricci Oddi Gallery, perhaps a plan to swap the two. But, these claims are largely unverified.
At the time of the painting’s disappearance, the gallery was being renovated to prepare for a special exhibition of this Klimt painting, excited by the fact that it was the first “double” painting by the artist. Could it have been misplaced during the chaos of remodeling?
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The Klimt was finally found by two gardeners in December 2019 after more than two decades with no leads on the missing art. A Portrait of a Lady was nestled behind a metal plate in an exterior wall, wrapped in a bag and nicely preserved.
Although it wasn’t clear at first whether this was the actual missing painting, about a month later, authorities were able to authenticate the portrait as a genuine Klimt worth €60 million (over $65.1 million).
Then, in January, two Piacentines confessed that they were behind the stolen Klimt. The thieves claimed that they returned the piece to the city, but now, investigators aren’t so sure. These men have been accused of various crimes and it is believed that after the Klimt resurfaced, they saw it as an opportunity to make a statement that they “gave it back” in hopes of more lenient sentencing on their other crimes.
Rossella Tiadine, the widow of Stefano Fugazza, the former director of the Ricci Oddi Gallery was taken in for questioning by Italian police and remains under investigation after a diary entry by Fugazza, who died in 2009, has been brought back to the attention of the police.
Fugazza’s diary entry reads as follows:
“I wondered what could be done to give the exhibition some notoriety, to ensure an audience success like never before. And the idea that came to me was to organize, from the inside, theft of the Klimt, just before the show (exactly, my God, what happened), for the work to then be rediscovered after the show began.”
Later he wrote: “But now The Lady has gone for good, and damned be the day I even thought of such a foolish and childish thing.”
Although the excerpt was first published back in 2016, now that the Klimt has been found on the Gallery’s property, this entry might have potentially been a decoy. Although Tiadine, his widow, may have not been involved with the theft, she may still be implicated if it turns out to have been her late husband.
Clearly, the stolen Klimt is full of ups and downs, confusion and drama, but the good news is, this beautiful piece of art is safe and sound. The gallery was excited to announce that it will be exhibiting the piece as soon as possible and it’s safe to say that art lovers from all around the world will be clamoring to get a glimpse.