Gustav Klimt’s painting Portrait of a Lady (1917) will be exhibited for the first time following its dramatic discovery within the walls of the gallery from which it was stolen nearly 23 years ago. The painting was found in 2019 when a gardener working for Ricci-Oddi Modern Art Gallery in Piacenza, Italy, removed a metal panel on the venue’s exterior, revealing the Klimt, which had presumably been stowed away in the aborted theft.
The portrait was initially set to be exhibited at the northern Italian gallery in 2020 as part of a series of shows dedicated to the Vienna Secession painter, but the opening was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers announced on Friday that the painting will finally be unveiled to the public this October at the Museum of Rome in Palazzo Braschi in an exhibit exploring Klimt’s period in Italy, which left a profound impression on his artwork. His signature use of gold-leaf was reportedly inspired by a visit to the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
The work will be on view for five months before returning to Ricci-Oddi Modern, which also has plans to display the portrait. Klimt completed the painting in 1917, a year before he died, and it was acquired by Ricci Oddi Gallery in 1925. It depicts a young woman who is believed to the artist’s lover. She is shown before a deep green backdrop, glancing over her shoulder.
In 1997, ten months prior to the theft, an X-ray analysis revealed that that Klimt had created Portrait of a Lady by painting over the earlier piece. An exhibition focused on the discovery of the “double painting” was organized, and the portrait disappeared amid preparation for it. Its broken frame was discovered on the gallery’s roof, leading investigators to believe that the work may have been removed from the wall and reeled on a line through an open skylight by someone connected to the gallery.
Upon its rediscovery in December 2019, Jonathan Papamerenghi, a member of the Piacenza council, told the Italian publication La Repubblica that it was “the most sought-after stolen painting in the world after Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.” It has been estimated to be worth around $70 million.
In March, the Italian publication Arts Culture & Style reported that prosecutors had dropped charges against three people who claimed to have been had been suspected of being involved in the 1997 theft. The suspects said that they had returned the painting to the gallery’s wall as a “gift” to the city, but prosecutors weren’t convinced by their story.
“They have been obscure about the details but have always maintained that the painting was not in the cavity all of that time,” Ermanno Mariani, an Italian journalist first contacted by the purported thieves, told the Guardian in January. “I’m not a technical expert, but it would have been damaged if it had been there for all those years.”