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Portrait of a Lady

The technologies that authenticate stolen artworks can also reveal their hidden histories

Portrait of a Lady

The Viennese painter Gustav Klimt painted ‘Portrait of a Lady’ between 1916 and 1917. 

In 1925, the oil on canvas was bought by the Piacenza collector Giuseppe Ricci Oddi, and in the years that followed, it became the subject of many twists and turns that have led to numerous investigative theses that are still shrouded in mystery.

The first discovery dates back to 1996, thanks to the intuition and keen eye of an art student from Piacenza. 

While studying a volume of the Rizzoli Art Classics for a school research project on the female portraits in the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art, Claudia Maga noticed an extraordinary similarity between ‘Portrait of a Lady’ and another painting by the Viennese artist from 1910, ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’, exhibited in Dresden in 1912 and thought to have been lost in 1927, which depicted a woman wearing a large hat with a scarf around her neck. 

In the painting we know today, the woman has a different dress, fastened up to her neck, and no hat or scarf, but the similarity of the two faces could not go unnoticed by such an attentive and passionate student, who is now an art teacher. 

Claudia enlarged the image – which in the Rizzoli volume was the size of a postage stamp – and tried to superimpose it on ‘Portrait of a Lady’. The student had made a discovery of great importance to the art world, which was later confirmed by radiological, reflectographic, infrared and ultraviolet techniques: the two portraits were actually two paintings by Klimt on the same canvas. 

According to art historians, the original portrait showed a young woman with whom Klimt is believed to have had a love affair. After the woman’s sudden death, the artist then painted over the work, covering the hat and scarf but leaving the face virtually unchanged. 

On 23 February 1997, newspapers reported that the ‘Portrait of a Lady’ had disappeared from the Ricci Oddi Gallery, an event discovered on the evening of the 22nd but which had actually taken place a few days earlier. 

The delay in discovering the theft was due to movement of this and other works to the nearby Piazza Cavalli for an exhibition on Klimt at Palazzo Gotico in Piacenza.

The frame of the painting was found near the skylight of the gallery, but it is not clear whether the work, which has an estimated value of 60 million euro, was taken off the roof or whether the thieves came through the main entrance. 

The Carabinieri initially put the gallery’s custodians under investigation, but this theory was quickly dismissed for lack of evidence.

Since then, several investigative hypotheses have been followed. It was suggested that the painting had been taken abroad by art, drug and diamond traffickers and even that it had been part of an esoteric ritual performed in a cemetery, until the investigation was reopened in 2016 after traces of DNA from one of the thieves were found on the frame. 

On 10 December 2019, a gardener who was removing the thick ivy that had enveloped three sides of the gallery building discovered a gap sealed with a metal sheet and, on opening it, found the painting wrapped in a black plastic bag inside. 

The painting was in good condition and underwent analysis to prove its authenticity. Its unique “double” nature was an excellent marker of its heritage, easily provable by radiographic analysis and other advanced imaging techniques, which are frequently used in the restitution of stolen or trafficked pieces of art. 

According to investigators, it is unlikely that the painting remained there since its disappearance, but there are no confirmed alternative theses for what was the second most wanted painting in Italy after Caravaggio’s Nativity, stolen from Palermo in 1969. It is unknown exactly why the painting was taken, but one popular hypothesis is that it was commissioned by a wealthy collector. While this type of high profile art theft is one of the most publicised forms of illicit trafficking in artworks, it accounts for just X% of all illegal traffic in cultural heritage.

In the embedded web object on the page here, you can see the different stages of the painting’s history, from its first incarnation, to its overpainted form, to the radiographic scan revealing its true nature, to the stolen, rolled up, and hidden form stashed outside the building, and finally its current state. The AR effect, usable both on the painting in the Ricci Oddi gallery as well as on any image of it, allows you to see the transformation from modern to original forms through a “radiographic scan” showing just how the painting was changed.

Portrait of a Lady

Klimt’s painting disappeared 24 years ago. It was found in 2019 when it finally returned to the Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art in Piacenza, Italy.

Year
1916-1917

Artist
Gustav Klimt

Period
Surrealism

Size
55×60 cm

Location
Ricci Oddi Gallery of Modern Art, PIacenza, Italy.

Augmented reality

You can try the effect of this painting at home, just follow the instructions:

  1. Make sure you have Instagram installed on your phone
  2. Open the camera or an app to scan the QR code (if the QR code is not an option for you, use the link)
  3. Match the image you see on your phone with image of the painting below to activate Augmented Reality
  4. Enjoy the experience and share it
KlimtMARKER