When a gardener found Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady in the garden wall of the very gallery the painting was stolen from more than 20 years ago, it shocked the art world and left a lot of unanswered questions. While the investigation is ongoing, two men have confessed to being the burglars …and returners… of the work.
The artwork went missing as the Ricci Oddi modern art gallery in Piacenza was preparing for an exhibition of works that centred around Portrait of a Lady. At that time, the Klimt was making the news as it was just discovered to be the only ‘double’ by the artist. An art student realized that Portrait of a Lady was painted over top of another work by Klimt, a 1912 painting titled Portrait of a Young Woman that was thought to have been lost. However, before the exhibition started, the work was stolen without much evidence as to who had taken it. That was until recently when the men made claims to have stolen Portrait of a Lady in 1997 in a letter delivered to Ermanno Mariani, a journalist for the Libertà, a local newspaper.
‘They have been obscure about the details but have always maintained that the painting was not in the cavity all of that time,’ said Mariani. ‘I’m not a technical expert, but it would have been damaged if it had been there for all those years.’ In their letter, the men said they chose to return the painting ‘as a gift to the city’ and while the entire story isn’t known, yet, the gardener might have foiled the pair’s plan to be the ones to tip off the gallery or police on the whereabouts of the painting.
‘They said they returned the painting four years ago,’ said Guido Gulieri, the two men’s lawyer, to The Guardian. ‘But we don’t yet know the details of how it came to be [in the recess] and what exactly happened to the painting in the intervening years.’
After their letter, the men were questioned by police last Friday. They’re thought to be a part of a local gang that has carried out a number of thefts in Piacenza and its surrounding areas, some with similar MOs to the Ricci Oddi theft. The men also tried to confess to stealing the Klimt three years ago, but no one believed them. It is reported that the men have given police the address for the house where the painting was stored for nearly two decades and that they used fishing line to finagle the painting out of the gallery via a skylight. The confession strategically comes after the statute of limitations has expired for the theft, making it clearer as to why the men have come forward now.
‘It is a very strange story,’ continued Gulieri, ‘they could have sold it or burned it, or whatever. They won’t go to prison for it. But the good news is, we have found the painting.’