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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Portrait of a Lady, by Gustav Klimt: return of a twice stolen painting

Not only a painting twice stolen but a double painting: the "Portrait of a Lady" is one of those works which multiply the adventures, more than a hundred years after their creation.

It was a quiet little provincial Klimt like there are dozens of oil on canvas of modest dimensions depicting a bust-up woman on an emerald green background. Her mouth half-open, her chin oval, has that languid air that transforms Gustav Klimt's women into creatures, like Judith, like Salomé, or Pallas. White skin, red cheeks, the model stretches her swan neck to plunge her gaze into that of the painter. Who is she? A friend? A mistress? A sponsor?

"Klimt could arouse even more the scandal if the families of the girls and women of the high society knew under what conditions he carries out their portraits so much sought after," said Baroness Knips, one of his patrons, after posing in his studio. Klimt shares his home with his mistresses, cats, sisters, and mother. A feminine universe from which he draws his primary source of inspiration: all-powerful women rule his phantom and dreamlike world, dotted with curves, spirals, and mythological allusions. The Lady was painted at the end of her life, barely a year before her death. Is this the reason why the work seems so stripped down? The last paintings of the masters are often the most refined, the rawest. He who was so fond of patterns, gold, and ornaments, he is content here to suggest the richness of the garment with a few touches of color, and in an excellent economy of means, he mixes shades of green to give the illusion of the depth.


We never knew the model's identity; in 1996, an Italian student, Claudia Maga, spotted another portrait of Klimt in a book that looked like her. She wears a hat, a boa around her neck, her shoulder is bare - but under these disguises, the young girl recognizes the face of the Lady. The painting, dated 1912, is missing. By superimposing a tracing paper of the hat and the boa on the Portrait of a Lady, Claudia Maga realizes that the two portraits have the exact same pose and the same dimensions - she rushes to the Galerie d'Art Moderne de Plaisance, between Parma and Milan, where she persuades the director to take Portrait of a Lady to the nearest hospital. Despite her eighteen years, she knows how to be convincing: you have to look into it. The work's xray instantly reveals the portrait with the hat under the current picture: Claudia Maga has just discovered the only known double painting of Gustav Klimt. Since then, it is rumored that in 1912, the painter fell madly in love with a young woman; when she died in 1917, he would have modified her portrait to not suffer from having it in front of his eyes.

A few months after this revelation, the Musée de Plaisance organized an exhibition in his honor. It is then that the work disappears at the end of a fishing line through the ceiling window. We find on the roof of the museum the abandoned frame. "Portrait of a Lady" immediately became one of the most sought-after works in the world, after Caravaggio's Nativity. However, the investigation flounders and turns in circles until 2003, when a carabinieri intercepts the painting at Ventimiglia's border. The work so perfectly similar, with the smell of fresh paint, turns out to be only a copy. In the region, a known art dealer confesses: the fake of Ventimiglia is the work escaped from the roof. Benefiting from immunity in exchange for his statements, he tells how he had taken the painting off the wall before replacing it with a copy, shortly after Claudia Maga's discoveries. He then stole the copy to cover his first theft, which involved a museum official. Okay. But where is the original? He will reappear on the twentieth anniversary of his disappearance, announces the thief.

And it is indeed necessary to wait nearly twenty years to hear again about the Lady of Klimt. In January 2020, the return is worthy of a movie scene: a gardener was quietly clearing a wall of the Plaisance Museum, when he saw an air vent buried under the ivy. Inside, a garbage bag was quietly awaiting its heyday. The gardener thought about throwing it in the garbage first - but it was light, so light! The Portrait of a Lady, in perfect condition, reappeared in broad daylight. And this time according to the experts, it is about the real work: it carries on its back the stamps of the museum.

The ultimate twist: a mysterious letter addressed to a local daily newspaper journalist and signed by the alleged perpetrators of the kidnapping. They claim to have returned the work four years ago, as a "gift to the city". This confession is consistent with the end of the theft statute of limitations. The work is so well preserved for experts that it could not have spent twenty years in its damp hiding place in the garden. The mark of the garbage bag in which it was packed did not appear on the market eight years after the theft ...

The "gift to the city" of Piacenza will be exhibited for the first time since its disappearance from November 28 in Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition with great fanfare has been waiting for it for 25 years. The Lady of Klimt is estimated between 60 and 100 million euros. And to prevent any further escapade, it will be presented behind armored glass, surrounded by concrete walls.

© Simone Allegria for


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