The writer Camille de Peretti, who is publishing this January entry L’Inconnue du portrait (Calmann-Lévy), discovered Portrait of a Lady, by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), in 2019 when a friend sent her a article in the British daily The Guardian dedicated to him. This painting was stolen and then found by chance after two decades of fruitless searches – a story “that ticks all the boxes of romance”, explains the writer by email.

Amusing detail, the woman in the portrait looks like her, the friend remarks. “A bit, she’s a brunette with green eyes,” admits the author. But very quickly, she forgets this detail to wonder about this woman. The Guardian and the BBC talk about an anonymous model with whom Klimt was madly in love. Unlikely, according to Camille de Peretti, who “studied in depth” the master’s portraits and sketches and found no other trace of the young woman. However, “when Klimt was in love, there were dozens of drawings.” She then invents a beautiful identity, in a fiction that multiplies the jumps in time and space, from Vienna to the United States, from the era of symbolist painters to that of DNA tests.

In reality, at the end of his life, Gustav Klimt would have produced two paintings. Around 1910, the Portrait of a young girl, who sports a mass of fuzzy hair under a large hat and a slightly disheveled dress. We lost track of him in 1912. The Austrian painter then painted another painting, Portrait of a Lady, between 1916 and 1917. If the “lady” looks exactly like the “young girl”, she wears a high bun and a loose blouse decorated with flowers.

The Portrait of a Lady was acquired in 1925 by the Ricci Oddi Museum of Modern Art, in Piacenza, Italy, while its young double seems to have effectively disappeared. What if it was one and the same portrait, reworked by the master? It was the crazy intuition of a certain Claudia Maga, in 1996. This 18-year-old art student suggested to the director of the Plaisance museum that she take her painting to the local hospital to have an x-ray performed. It reveals a significant repainting, i.e. the act of erasing elements of a work or adding them.

To celebrate the discovery of the repainting, the Italian museum planned an exhibition in 1997. It never took place: in February 1997, the portrait disappeared. According to the police, the thieves used a fishing line to unhook the painting and pass it through a trapdoor, and exfiltrate it through the roof of the museum. But, in reality, the hatch turns out to be too small. Nobody really understands what happened. A month later, a new twist: the portrait would be in Ventimiglia (Italy), in a package addressed to the former president of the Italian council Bettino Craxi, prosecuted for corruption and who took refuge in Tunisia to escape justice. But the canvas smells of fresh paint… It is a fake. For more than twenty years, the enigma persisted.