Experts have confirmed that a painting discovered by gardeners hidden in the wall of an Italian art museum is a work by Gustav Klimt. The painting, which was stolen from the museum 24 years ago but may never have left its grounds, will go on view after forensic teams have finished examining it for evidence of its mysterious theft.

The work, which had been missing since February 1997, was found on December 10 by the gardeners as they cleared ivy from the walls of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi in Piacenza. The canvas had been stashed in an alcove concealed behind a metal panel.

Conservation experts report the painting is in good condition despite its less than ideal storage conditions. There is a scratch on the canvas that likely occurred when the portrait was removed from its frame.

In a further twist to the story, experts were able to authenticate the work because Klimt painted Portrait of a Lady (1917) on top of an older canvas that also featured an elegant young woman. 

Unanswered Questions 

The news that the museum has recovered its Klimt painting was announced at a press conference on Friday, January 17. “It’s with no small emotion that I can tell you the work is authentic,” Piacenza’s prosecutor, Ornella Chicca, told reporters as she was speaking alongside the painting, which was guarded by two police officers, AP reports.

Amid the celebrations, several questions remain unanswered, including the identity of the perpetrator and whether the painting ever left the museum’s property.

On Friday, the Italian prosecutor said authorities were studying traces of organic material found on the recovered canvas in the hope that it will lead them to an answer.

A Rare Double Portrait

Key to the verification of the stolen artwork was the existence of stamps confirming its exhibition history on the back of the canvas, as well as infrared and x-ray analysis showing the existence of an earlier painting underneath it.

In the year before the painting went missing, an eagle-eyed art student had observed similarities between the Ricci Oddi’s Klimt and another painting by the Austrian master that was long thought to have been lost. Superimposing the Ricci Oddi’s portrait with a photograph of the 1912 work reproduced in a volume of the Classici dell’Arte Rizzoli revealed striking similarities. In both paintings, Klimt depicted a woman holding the same pose, although the earlier version had her wearing a hat and scarf as opposed to the more seductive final portrait. The student’s observations turned out to have merit and the presence of the underpainting was key to authenticating the work.

While other artists often reused canvases or scrapped earlier versions of paintings, this is the only known double portrait by Klimt. The discovery adds another layer of intrigue to an already remarkable tale.

Klimt finished the dreamy Portrait of a Lady, the year before he died in 1918. It was purchased in 1925 by the Italian art collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi. An archive photograph shows the painting hanging the billiard’s room of Ricci Oddi’s palazzo. 

In a statement, the museum’s president, Massimo Ferrari, says he is “happy” about the authentication. “All of us are very much looking forward to this ‘gift’ being the momentum that we have been imagining for a long time and for which we are working in the interest of the Pinacoteca Piacentina and of our city,” the board of directors add.

The museum’s insurance premiums look set to leap as the auction record for a Klimt portrait is north of $87 million. That was set at Christie’s in 2006 for a 1912 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. 

To keep the momentum going after news of the unexpected discovery went viral last month, the museum has also announced that it is planning a series of initiatives to keep the painting in the international spotlight.

First, it plans to organise an international conference to promote further study of the work by “the greatest art experts” in the world. In a show of “Italian pride,” the museum also hopes to put the painting on view in an exhibition along with the two other Klimt paintings held in Italian museums in Rome and Venice.

The museum has been contacted by movie executives and book publishers looking to adapt the incredible story. The institution is working on a book that will reconstruct the history of the portrait before and after it was purchased by the museum’s founder.

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