Confessed Thief in 1997 Gustav Klimt Heist Claims Canvas Will Soon Be Returned

The police have new leads in the nearly 20-year-old case.

Gustav Klimt, The Lady. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.
Gustav Klimt, The Lady. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.

An unsolved art heist, nearly two decades old, may have a happy ending in sight, reports the BBC. The case is that of Gustav Klimt‘s The Lady, from the collection of the Ricci-Oddi gallery in Piacenza, Italy.

The painting was stolen February 22, 1997, vanishing without a trace while its gilded frame was found abandoned on the institution’s roof.

At the time, The Lady had recently acquired a new significance within Klimt’s oeuvre. Art student Claudia Maga, just 18 at the time, was studying The Complete Works of Gustav Klimt when she realized that The Lady, depicting a young woman glancing over her left shoulder, featured the same pose as the artist’s Portrait of a Young Lady, which hadn’t been seen since 1912.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Young Lady, as it would have looked before the artist repainted it as The Lady. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Young Lady, as it would have looked before the artist repainted it as The Lady. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.

Maga had the bright idea to overlay the earlier painting, in which the woman wears a scarf and hat, with The Lady, and found they were a perfect match. X-rays confirmed her hunch: “The Lady was concealing another portrait beneath it, the only double portrait Klimt has ever painted,” Maga told the BBC.

Supposedly, the first portrait was of Klimt’s dead love, repainted out of grief.

The gallery decided to arrange an exhibition around the sensational discovery, in a location near city hall. It was timed to planned renovations at the gallery. The chaos involved provided the perfect cover for the theft, as it was initially assumed the painting had been packed up in anticipation of the move.

The floor plan of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, indicating the room from where Gustav Klimt's <em>The Lady</em> was stolen. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.

The floor plan of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, indicating the room from where Gustav Klimt’s The Lady was stolen. Courtesy of the Ricci-Oddi gallery, Piacenza, Italy.

In April of that year, border police intercepted a package containing what at first blush appeared to be the painting, but was quickly unveiled as a recently-completed forgery.

The case was closed not long after, but was reopened in March 2014. A man surfaced asking for a ransom in exchange for the work last November, but nothing came of it at the time. There is now new hope thanks to recent investigations by Col Luca Pietranera, and the local thief who confessed his guilt in the crime.

“I stole it months before anybody had noticed,” the thief told the BBC, explaining that he had first swapped the Klimt original for a worthless copy with help from a gallery employee. “Nobody blinked, nobody noticed. It was an easy and carefully planned inside job.”

Fearing that Klimt experts drawn to the upcoming exhibition would detect the truth, the thief planned a second, unmissable robbery.

Even though the man quickly sold The Lady for cash and cocaine, he boldly predicts that the painting will be returned within the next few months, in time for the 20th anniversary of the theft. Italian police also seem to be confident, and are reportedly investigating leads connected to a private collection in Europe.


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