Art crime is always one of the most fascinating topics that arises when you’re keeping up with what’s going on in the art world, and a story about a stolen Austrian painting in Italy that I’ve been following for the past couple of months is a perfect example of why.
Subscribers and regular readers will recall my telling you back in December about the rediscovery of a long-lost painting by Austrian Secessionist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), found under very curious circumstances yards away from where it used to hang. “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1917) disappeared from a gallery in the northern Italian city of Piacenza over two decades ago, in a baffling heist which gave the famous art crime squad of the Carabinieri little more than some dead-end leads to pursue. One of the usual suspects in art world crime claimed to have stolen the picture and made a copy, and a very good copy was indeed intercepted by Italian customs on its way to Italy’s disgraced former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, not long after the theft, but this didn’t solve the mystery of what had happened to the original.
Then in December of last year, what appeared to be the missing picture was miraculously rediscovered stashed inside a cubbyhole with a metal door on the outside of the building. Tests carried out in January on the canvas confirmed that it was the missing Klimt and not another copy. One of the key pieces of evidence in making this determination was that, prior to painting’s disappearance, an art history student was in the process of publishing research showing that the picture is, in a sense, a double portrait. It is the only known example of Klimt reusing one of his previous paintings as a surface for a new painting, and that hidden image, if you will, was once again revealed during examination and testing of the recovered piece.
With art experts having established that the painting is the missing Klimt, the Carabinieri are now back to gumshoeing it, trying to figure out who stole the painting in the first place. The frame for the picture, which bears a thumbprint that may or may not prove a useful clue, had been recovered from the roof of the gallery at the time of the theft. Police believe that the perpetrators may have taken the painting up through a skylight, and then cut it from its frame to make it easier to transport.
As to the question of how long the canvas had been rolled up in its black plastic garbage bag inside its hiding place, at least as of this writing that appears to be an unanswered question. According to groundskeepers at the gallery, the ivy covering this spot in the gardens had not been cut back in over a decade. Presumably investigators searching the premises back in the late 1990’s either didn’t see the odd feature because it was overgrown, or simply overlooked it as a possibility.
Not long after the formal authentication of the picture, two known art thieves confessed to an Italian journalist that they had been responsible for the crime. They claimed to have returned the picture to the hiding place where it was found by the gallery’s gardeners four years prior to its rediscovery, and gave details of how they had removed the painting through the skylight using fishing line and where they had stashed the piece while it was in their possession. As Art Critique points out, the timing of their confession, if it proves to be true, is probably not a coincidence, since under Italian law, the statute of limitations for prosecutions of this type of theft has already run out.
Now, the latest plot twist in the mystery is that police are questioning the widow of Stefano Fugazza, the man who was the director of the gallery at the time the Klimt was stolen, and have searched her home on a charge of handling stolen goods. It appears from his diaries that Signor Fugazza had thought about staging a fake theft of the Klimt in order to draw attention to an exhibition in which the painting was scheduled to appear around the time of its disappearance, although if we take his own words at face value he appears to have backed away from this idea. “The idea was to deliberately organize the theft of the Klimt shortly before the exhibition,” he wrote. “My God, what happened next.” If this turns out to be the case, i.e. that Fugazza set a juggernaut in motion which he could not stop, the situation would be somewhat reminiscent of William H. Macy’s character’s conundrum in the film, “Fargo”.
As you might imagine with a potential plot line like this, publishers and film studios are already fishing around for rights, even without the case being anywhere resolved as of yet. Fear not, gentle reader: I’ll keep you posted on any developments. And now, let’s take a look at some other art news headlines that have caught my eye this week.
The Allentown Art Museum in NE Pennsylvania isn’t an institution that immediately comes to mind, if you’re coming up with a list of America’s major art institutions. For admirers of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) however, it’s about to become the newest stop on the pilgrimage trail to see the Dutch Old Master’s complete oeuvre. “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1632), which was long believed to have been a work executed in Rembrandt’s studio by one of his assistants, has recently been determined to be a work by the master himself. The painting has been undergoing cleaning and conservation since 2018, and will be going back on display to the public in June of this year as part of a special exhibition exploring how research and technology helped to make this new identification possible.
Those of my readers who find themselves in the St. Louis area in the coming months would be well-served by visiting the St. Louis Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Millet and Modern Art: From Van Gogh to Dalí”, which opens this Sunday. The 19th century French Realist painter Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) is perhaps best known for his popular, somewhat sentimentalized (and vaguely socialist) images of scenes from peasant life. Yet these images continued to have a lasting impact on later generations that followed the Barbizon school of which he was among the most prominent members. Among Millet’s most important works are “The Sower” (1850), versions of which are now in Boston and Pittsburgh, and two pictures in the Musée d’Orsay: “The Gleaners” (1857), and above all “The Angelus” (1857). Both the Pittsburgh “Sower” and Millet’s masterpiece “The Angelus” from the Orsay will be in the exhibition, so this is a very rare opportunity indeed to see not only these works, but also their juxtaposition alongside works of Modern art that take their cues or inspiration from Millet, including not only Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dalí, but Claude Monet, Winslow Homer, Edvard Munch, and many others. The exhibition runs through May 17th.
And speaking of Munch, it appears that unfortunately, one of his most famous paintings is fading away, and there is little that can be done to stop it. Over the course of his career Edvard Munch (1863-1944) created four versions of his iconic “The Scream”: two in paint on canvas, and two in pastels. The second canvas painting, which is in the Munch Museum in Oslo, is experiencing some significant pigment changes that are permanently altering the way future generations will be able to see his work. Among other changes, for example, Munch’s oranges and yellows are now turning white, as you can see in the image below. For a very fascinating dive into why this is happening – and why many 19th and early 20th century paintings are undergoing similar changes, check out this excellent piece in Art Daily about the efforts to better understand the phenomenon, which is beginning to affect many famous works of art from the turn of the previous century.