LINZ, Austria — A long-lost pencil drawing of two reclining women by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt has resurfaced in a former secretary’s home here, tucked away in a closet.
The secretary, whose name is not being released for legal reasons, worked in Linz’s Neue Galerie (now the Lentos Museum) until 1977. She died in December 2017, leaving details of the artwork’s location. On Jan. 15, the secretary’s lawyer returned the drawing to the City of Linz.
“We were very surprised at this discovery,” said Julius Stieber, the director of culture and education for the City of Linz. “We’d received a letter, but no one expected the drawing to be returned.”
In Austria and Germany, finding missing art is rarely simple. The drawing, along with three works by Klimt’s contemporary Egon Schiele, was part of a long legal battle and an even longer back story.
In 1951, the Linz-born artist and collector Olga Jäger lent all four artworks to the Neue Galerie. She died in 1965. In 1990, the wife of her nephew Kurt Jäger requested their return, according to a letter found in the museum last year. Her sons asked again in 2006.
After both requests, city and museum officials searched through municipal and regional art collections, but the art was nowhere to be found.
The younger Jägers sued the City of Linz. In 2011 the Austrian Supreme Court set damages at 100,000 euros for “Paar,” one of the Schiele works in question. Later, in 2017, the city was ordered to pay the heirs 8.21 million euros, or roughly $10 million, for the remaining three lost pictures.
But how did the Klimt drawing end up in a closet? According to Mr. Stieber, the secretary’s will said that in 1964, she noticed some irregularities with the documentation of the Schiele pictures after a loan to the Albertina Museum in Vienna, and notified the Neue Galerie’s then-director, Walter Kasten.
Mr. Kasten told her to keep the irregularities quiet and gave her the Klimt drawing as “hush art,” Mr. Steiber said, further describing the will’s account of the events. “For years the Klimt hung in her apartment, but when the Jäger case became public, she hid it in her wardrobe, ” Mr. Stieber said.
“It’s like a thriller,” Klaus Luger, the mayor of Linz, said in a news conference on Tuesday.
Independent of the Klimt find, the Jäger family’s restitution case is being reopened. The 1990 document requesting the return of the four works, found only after the 2017 court decision, could mean that the statute of limitations on restitution had expired. The retrial begins on Friday.
Klimt’s “Zwei Liegende,” or “Two Reclining Figures” (1916-17), depicts two women who appear to be blissfully sleeping, wrapped in gauzy coverings. It will be on view in the Lentos Museum in its “1918 — Klimt – Moser – Schiele: Collected Beauties” exhibition running from Friday through May 21. “We’re showing mostly drawings by Klimt and Schiele from our collection,” said Elisabeth Novak-Thaller, head of collections and deputy director. “The drawing is a wonderful addition to the show, and part of our collection history.”
The exhibition’s publicity might also help locate the other works. “It’s like searching for needles in a haystack, but we found one needle,” Ms. Novak-Thaller said.
Both Klimt and Schiele died in 1918. In addition to the exhibition in Linz, numerous other museums in Austria will be showing the works of the two artists, along with the work of the graphic designer Koloman Moser and the architect Otto Wagner, throughout the year to commemorate the centenary of their deaths.