Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of a Lady” (1917) (via Wikimedia Commons)

After over 20 years since its mysterious disappearance, Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady” found its way back to the authorities, allegedly thanks to the very thieves who stole the painting itself. Artnet reports two men claimed responsibility for the crime by writing to a journalist, Ermanno Mariani at Libertà, of their misdeed. According to the thieves’ lawyer, the pair had confessed to the crime years ago to the police, but no one believed them. 

It wasn’t until December 10, 2018, that gardeners happened upon the painting in a trash bag tucked away in a wall of the Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery in Italy. A number of details — like what happened to the painting during the intervening years — are not yet known. Once one of the most sought-after stolen paintings in the art world, the rediscovered “Portrait of a Lady,” was authenticated by experts on January 17. The painting is valued at €60 million (~$66.5 million). 

The thieves, now in their 60s, wrote in a letter to Mariani, “We are the authors of the theft of Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady, and we have given a gift to the city by returning the canvas.” They said they waited until they would not “incur further crimes” for their stunt but the pair “did not foresee the intervention of the gardener who, however, only anticipated us a little.”

The Guardian reported that the Klimt painting was stolen during preparations for a new exhibition in 1997. Authorities suspected that the burglars used fish hooks and wires to pick the painting out of its place. It is likely the pair of thieves held on to the painting for as long as they did to wait out the 20 years statute of limitations. The two men will now face jail time for other crimes unrelated to the stolen painting. 

“They said they returned the painting four years ago,” Guido Gulieri, the thieves’ lawyer, told the Guardian. “But we don’t yet know the details of how it came to be [in the recess] and what exactly happened to the painting in the intervening years. They had confessed before but were not believed.”

This is not the first time a Klimt work has returned after going missing. In 2018, a Klimt sketch, “Zwei Liegende (Two Reclining Figures),” was discovered in the closet of a former museum secretary in Austria. She originally received the drawing as payment to keep quiet after she discovered discrepancies in the museum’s collection in the 1960s. The work was only recovered after the secretary had died. 

Monica Castillo is a writer and critic based in New York City. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice,, Remezcla, the Guardian, Variety, NPR, and Boston...