Italian detectives may be on the cusp of solving one of the art world’s most baffling mysteries after a Gustav Klimt painting thought to be stolen may have been found stashed within the walls of the gallery where it went missing over two decades ago.

Earlier this week, a gardener clearing ivy from Ricci-Oddi modern art gallery in the northern city of Piacenza noticed a metal panel in the wall and pried it open to peer inside the nook between the external and internal gallery walls. 

“I found this box inside a black sack and at first I thought it was trash, but then I called my superiors right away,” the worker told Italian media.

Gallery officials, reached by the Telegraph, said they are thrilled about the unexpected find during routine winter maintenance and are cautiously optimistic that the painting is indeed Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady,” which went missing from the gallery in February 1997.

“It would be the best Christmas present ever,” said Gallery Vice President Laura Bonfanti. 

“Of course the work must now be examined by experts to verify its authenticity but at first glance, based on the wax seals and stamps we saw on the back of the canvas, it appears to be the original.”   

The whereabouts of the Austrian master’s original painting, believed to be worth 60 million euros (£50m), has for two decades intrigued the art world and frustrated Italy’s top art detectives. Rumours swirled that the painting had fallen into the hands of a satanic sect. Others speculated about an inside job involving gallery associates. 

Police show the metal panel where the Klimt painting was apparently found Credit:
Italian Police

The painting gained notoriety the year before its disappearance when a young art student discovered that it was Klimt’s only ‘double’ portrait, with the visible painting completed on top of another, ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’, which had not been seen since 1912. 

But then as the paintings were packed up ahead of an exhibition to showcase the new find, in February 1997, the Klimt disappeared. 

The painting’s heavy frame was found on the roof – an odd clue since it was too large to fit through the only roof window. 

Baffled police enlisted a well-known local art thief to help with their investigations, but to no avail. A suspect painting found three months later on the Italian-French border turned out to be a forgery, and fingerprints found on the frame years later also came to nothing. 

A BBC investigation into the painting in 2016 spoke to the original art thief enlisted to help, who admitted that he had been the one who actually stole the work. 

However, he claimed to have taken it months before the famous theft, replacing it with a copy – which he claimed he then stole in February 1997, to hide the fact that it was a copy from the experts who would be drawn to the new exhibition. 

He suggested the original had been sold for cash and cocaine, and would be returned in 2017. It was not, and the truth – and whereabouts of the painting – have remained a mystery. 

Until earlier this week, when the mysterious treasure may have been discovered, hidden right under the gallery’s nose, perhaps stashed by thieves decades before.  

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“We are not excluding the possibility that the painting has been there the whole time,” said Carabinieri General and art detective Roberto Riccardi, who oversees the agency’s cultural patrimony unit.