The case of the Klimt found hidden in the wall of an Italian gallery may have finally reached its conclusion.
In December, a gardener clearing ivy at the gallery discovered the canvas, half-concealed by a trash bag, behind a metal panel on the gallery’s exterior. Investigations immediately went underway to determine if the painting was Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady (1916–17). On Friday, experts confirmed the painting was the prized Klimt, which had been stolen from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi in Piacenza, Italy, almost 23 years ago, and that it is now valued around $60 million.
Now, two men have declared themselves the perpetrators of the 1997 heist, according to a report in the Guardian. The men, who are believed to be members of a gang connected to dozens of heists in Italy’s northern region, confessed to the crime in a letter Ermanno Mariani, a journalist for the local newspaper, Libertà
The portrait went missing during preparations for an exhibition in which it was to be the centerpiece. Shortly before the theft, an art student had discovered that the canvas actually contained two portraits–Klimt had painted over Portrait of a Young Woman, which had not been seen since 1912. The discovery made the painting the only known “double” Klimt, as experts have labeled it. The painting’s broken frame was found on the gallery’s roof, leading police to assume at the time of the heist that it had been reeled through the open skylight.
In the letter delivered to Mariani, the authors describe stealing Portrait of a Lady in February 1997, and they explain their decision to return the painting “as a gift to the city.” They claim to have hidden the painting behind the panel four years after the heist. One of the men, with whom Mariani had previously been in contact during an unrelated investigation, had confessed his guilt to the journalist three years ago. He asked the journalist to arrange a meeting with investigators, but for reasons that are still unclear, he wasn’t viewed as credible by the city’s authorities, even after providing the address of a house where they claim the painting had been stored after the theft.
The Klimt was found in the cavity in an excellent condition, which could support the theory that it had been hidden elsewhere for a majority of the intervening years. Their motivations behind the timing of the first confession—20 years after the theft—likely have to do with an expired statue of limitations for the crime.
“It is a very strange story… they could have sold it or burned it, or whatever,” Guido Gulieri, a lawyer for the thieves, told the Guardian. “They won’t go to prison for it. But the good news is, we have found the painting.”