The saga began on the morning of 22 February 1997, when the Ricci Oddi Museum in Piacenza first realised that their prized painting had gone missing. ‘Portrait of a Lady’ (1917) was one of the last artworks painted by Klimt before his death and is now estimated to be worth €60 million (£50.2 million). After 24 years of speculation, the painting was found concealed inside the museum’s garden wall at the end of last year.
Its authentication was “a great, great moment for the city, and for the art community”, said Piacenza councillor, Jonathan Papamarenghi.
But this legendary saga has taken a new turn with the questioning of the widow of the late director of the museum. Rossella Tiadina is the widow of Stefano Fugazza, who passed away over ten years ago and managed the museum when Klimt’s dazzling portrait disappeared.
No charges have yet been brought against Tiadina, but this week Piacenza police began investigating the widow on the premise of handling stolen goods. This latest twist was prompted by a curious entry written by Fugazza in his diary, in which he admitted to considering stealing the painting himself to fuel interest in a Klimt exhibition.
“I wondered what could be done to give the exhibition some notoriety, to ensure an audience success like never before. And the idea that came to me was to organise, from the inside, a theft of the Klimt, just before the show (exactly, my God, what happened), for the work to then be rediscovered after the show began,” wrote Piacenza. However, he instantly regretted the thought, adding that he “damned be the day I even thought of such a foolish and childish thing.”
Since the shocking discovery, other suspects have also been questioned in connection to the theft. In January two unidentified men confessed to stealing, and then returning, the Klimt painting in a letter to a local journalist.
The men, who are believed to be part of a criminal gang in Piacenza, explained “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.” According to some critics, the confession should be doubted because the men might be angling to decrease the punishments they are already serving for unrelated crimes.
Although the 20-year statute of limitations for the crime has expired, police continue to investigate every avenue in the hope of solving this international mystery.