A 23 year old case of art theft is back in the news. While not solved, it has certainly taken a new, bizarre turn.
In 1917 Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt learned that a woman from a previous affair was suddenly, tragically dead. After hearing this news, he considered his “Portrait of a Young Lady,” the portrait of his late lover. Consumed by grief, he painted over the reminder. Klimt named the new work “Portrait of a Lady” (also called “The Lady”).
Eight years later Italian gallerist Giuseppe Ricci Oddi purchased the portrait for his gallery. It stayed there for decades.
The mysterious painting beneath the painting was not known until 1996. An intrepid 18 year old art student Claudia Maga noticed that “Portrait of a Lady” was a near dead-ringer for the earlier portrait thought to be lost to time. X-ray analysis proved Maga’s suspicions.
And so what does a gallery do when it discovers new depths to one of its masterpieces? Puts together an exhibition, of course. The gallery was soon to undergo restoration, so the exhibit would be off premises and include many of Klimt’s paintings.
In the swirl of pre-exhibition business and last minute detail work, “The Lady” disappeared. The only major clue being its frame, which was left on the roof of the gallery. Chaos ensued. Border control agents seized the painting on a train soon after, but it turned out to be a forgery.
The days ticked by with no more leads, and soon the case was closed.
But as the 20th year anniversary of the theft neared, a man emerged, demanding a hefty ransom ($163,000) for the painting. And yet, the painting did not materialize. So the police reopened the case and found a man claiming to be the thief. He claimed that the heist was an inside job, involving a gallery employee and a convincing forgery. When the date for the exhibition came closer, he said he’d also stolen the forgery (perhaps the one caught by border police).
Still, no painting. That was until a groundskeeper at the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art began clearing a patch of ivy off the building
The Discovery of Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady”
As widely reported, the gardener-hero of our story discovered a strange doorway underneath the tangle of ivy. Curious, he entered, finding a space inside the wall. Inside a black bag was the unmistakable shape of a canvas. Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady” was found.
When first revealed, authorities were cautious to claim this was the painting. So x-ray analysis was done to find traces of the painting underneath, which they did find. Italian police are holding the painting until they get every shred of evidence off of it, but will then return it to the gallery.
The strangeness of this case seems unending.
First, the origins of the painting accidentally led to the assumption that the original painting underneath was lost, instead it was painted over because of grief surrounding an untimely death. Second, when this fact was discovered, it’s renewed relevance led to an exhibition cut short by an inside job of the highest order. Third, when the “Portrait of a Lady” painting was stolen, it was initially replaced with a convincing forgery that the thief later risked his freedom to go back to the scene and steal due to some concern about the upcoming exhibition. Fourth, a convincing forgery was found by border patrol agents, quite possibly the same forgery used as a decoy for the initial theft. Fifth, when the painting was found, it was found in the very same building it was stolen from two decades before, hidden away in a secret chamber obscured by ivy and only discovered by an overzealous groundskeeper.
Major questions arise from this story. How do you sell a stolen painting that just made the news for being stolen? Someone would need a lot of money and not be afraid to have a hot item hanging in their home. But then, it was discovered in the wall of the gallery it was stolen out of (though we don’t know how long it had been there). So who put it there? Someone who knows the building well.
What follows is pure speculation, but let us indulge in speculation for a moment to answer these questions. The answers here are not certain, but they are interesting to consider. There are suspicions that because the painting was so famous, the gallery was unable to sell it, but that the theft might have been organized to get it off their hands and off load it for a black market payday. In the process, the gallery grabs headlines and free press. If the person who purchased it no longer wanted it, perhaps they sold it back to the gallery. To hide their crime, the gallery (or some employee thereof) could have hidden it in the wall. And the gardener? Me might’ve been instructed to take down a patch of ivy long since left to conceal the hiding place. He does so, discovers the painting, and now the gallery is back in the headlines with its precious painting intact, worth all the more due to the scandal.
There are many possibilities, but what is certain is that we are living through another chapter in one of the strangest art heist stories in history.