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Portrait found in gallery’s walls verified

PIACENZA, Italy — Art experts have confirmed that a painting discovered hidden inside an Italian art gallery’s walls last month is Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady,” which was stolen from the gallery nearly 23 years ago.

The authentication of the painting announced Friday solved one of the art world’s enduring mysteries — where did the missing work end up? — but left several questions unanswered, including who had taken it and whether it ever left the museum’s property.

A gardener at the Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery in the northern city of Piacenza who was clearing away ivy noticed a small panel door on a wall outside and opened it. Inside the space, he found a plastic bag containing a painting that appeared to be the missing masterpiece.

“It’s with no small emotion that I can tell you the work is authentic,” Piacenza Prosecutor Ornella Chicca told reporters Friday while two police officers stood on either side of an easel bearing the recovered painting.

“Portrait of a Lady,” which depicts a young woman sensually glancing over her shoulder against a dreamy moss green background, is a later work by Klimt, dating from 1916-17. It was reported missing in February 1997.

Since the gardener’s discovery on Dec. 10, the canvas had been kept in a vault of a local branch of Italy’s central bank while experts used infrared radiation and other non-invasive techniques to determine if it was the original “Portrait of a Lady.”

Experts said the painting was in remarkably good condition. One of the few signs of damage was a scratch near the edge of the canvas that may have resulted “from a clumsy effort to remove the portrait from its frame,” said Anna Selleri, an art restorer from the National Gallery in Bologna.

The experts who did the verification work found persuasive evidence in the work of their peers more than two decades ago.

While preparing for an exhibit shortly before “Portrait of a Lady” disappeared, an Italian art student noticed a similarity between the painting and another piece by Klimt. Intrigued by the student’s theory, experts at the time discovered that Klimt painted “Portrait of a Lady” on top of an earlier portrait of a woman.

Those studying the work in recent weeks, with the aid of X-rays, saw the earlier portrait. Selleri said the radiation analysis revealed that while painting the later portrait, Klimt didn’t redo much of the face, but used whitish pigment from the earlier version for the skin.

“Portrait of a Lady” was officially listed as missing on Feb. 22, 1997 but might have been snatched from a gallery wall a few days earlier, during the exhibit preparation work.

So who stole the painting? Chicca said police were studying some traces of organic material on the recovered canvas in hopes they might provide leads.

Asked if authorities knew if the piece had ever left the gallery’s grounds, investigators said that’s something else they hope to find out.

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