Thanks to his massively-popular – and widely-reproduced – work The Kiss, Gustav Klimt is one of the best-known painters of all time. That also means that, as well as being popular with the viewing public, the Austrian’s paintings are also popular with art thieves, as an intriguing case from 1997 shows. It was like something straight out of a heist movie, with forgeries, ransom notes and intrigue extending all the way to the top of the Italian political system.
The painting in question, Portrait of a Lady, was produced by Klimt in 1917. Later analysis revealed that it was painted on top of an earlier portrait of one of the artist’s lovers who had died in tragic circumstances. The Galleria Ricci-Oddi in the Italian city of Piacenza acquired the painting as early as 1925 and it remained one of its highlights right up until February of 1997. Then, when the museum was due to host a special exhibition in order to celebrate the re-opening of one its galleries after renovation, Portrait of a Lady vanished.
Several months later, Italian police made a startling discovery. They found a secret workshop where skilfully-made forgeries of the Klimt portrait had been produced. It’s now believed that the painting stolen on the eve of the museum’s special exhibition might not have even been the original. It could well be that Portrait of a Lady was taken and replaced with a forgery several months before the high-profile theft, with the second crime staged to distract from the earlier one. So far, no firm leads have been found, even though the thieves purportedly got in contact with the former Italian premier Bettino Craxi at one point. The Klimt remains missing.