A gardener clearing ivy from an Italian museum’s walls recently uncovered a metal panel. When he pulled it open, he discovered a nook in which someone had stuffed a black bag.
“[A]t first I thought it was trash,” the worker told Italian media, according to Andrea Vogt of the Telegraph, “but then I called my superiors right away.”
Inside the bag was a painting of a rosy-cheeked woman, staring over her shoulder with large, almond-shaped eyes. The work still needs to be examined by experts, but officials at the Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery in Piacenza suspect it may be a missing portrait by Austrian symbolist artist Gustav Klimt.
In the winter of 1997, the Ricci Oddi was preparing to send Portrait of a Lady to a new location near Piacenza’s City Hall, where it would be the centerpiece of an exhibition highlighting a remarkable discovery about the artwork, Max Paradiso reported for BBC News in 2016. A few months earlier, an 18-year-old art student named Claudia Maga was flipping through a book of Klimt’s works when she realized that Portrait of a Lady bore a remarkable similarity to another Klimt painting, similarly titled Portrait of a Young Lady, that had not been seen since 1912.
“The Young Lady had a scarf and a hat but they both had in common the same glance over the left shoulder, the same smile and the same beauty spot on the left cheek,” Maga told Paradiso.
X-rays revealed that the 1917 portrait had, in fact, been painted over Portrait of a Young Lady, making it the only known “double” Klimt work. Thrilled over the new finding, Piacenza planned to show off the painting in a special exhibition. But on February 22, 1997, Portrait of a Lady vanished from the Ricci Oddi.
The case confounded investigators. The portrait’s frame was found on the roof of the gallery, leading detectives to suspect that the thief or thieves had attached the painting to a line and pulled it up through a skylight. But according to Paradiso, authorities soon discovered that the frame would not fit through the skylight, raising questions as to how exactly it ended up on the roof. Gallery workers were placed under investigation, but a judge dismissed the case against them due to lack of evidence, Vogt reports.
In April 1997, police seized a package that they believed contained the missing artwork, only to discover that the painting inside was a fake. The investigation was ultimately closed, then reopened in 2016, when DNA traces were discovered on the frame, according to the Guardian’s Lorenzo Tondo. That same year, an unidentified man told Paradiso that he had been involved in the theft, and that he believed the artwork would be returned by the 20th anniversary of its disappearance. February 2017 came and went, but Portrait of a Lady remained missing.
Now, it seems the painting may have been hidden inside the gallery all along. According to a separate BBC News report, police are looking into the possibility that the thieves stashed the artwork behind the metal panel with the intention of retrieving it later—only to backtrack on that plan when media scrutiny of the heist intensified.
“It is very strange, because, immediately after the theft, every single inch of the gallery and garden was checked with a fine-tooth comb,” Jonathan Papamerenghi, a member of the Piacenza council with responsibility for culture, tells Italian newspaper La Repubblica, as quoted by Tondo. “The strangest thing is that the painting is in excellent condition. It does not seem like it has been locked under a trapdoor for 22 years.”
Ricci Oddi officials have stressed that the authenticity of the painting still needs to be evaluated, but gallery vice president Laura Bonfanti tells the Telegraph’s Vogt that “based on the wax seals and stamps we saw on the back of the canvas, it appears to be the original.”
Should the artwork prove to be an original Klimt, the decades-long mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Portrait of a Lady will finally come to a close, and a painting worth some $66 million will be restored to its rightful place on—not in—gallery walls.
“It would,” says Bonfanti, “be the best Christmas present ever.”