On Monday, an employee at an Italian art gallery was back from his lunch break when he stopped to check on some gardening works being done on the gallery exterior wall.

That’s when one of the workers told him they found a painting while cleaning ivy off a wall.

“At first I thought it was a joke,” Dario Gallinari, the employee, told CNN. “But then the gardener gave me this canvas that was half-hidden by a black bin bag.”

On the lower half, Gallinari immediately recognized a woman’s dress in a painting investigators believe is a Gustav Klimt portrait that has been missing for 23 years.

The painting, found at the Ricci Oddi Modern Art gallery in the city of Piacenza, looks to be Klimt’s “Portrait of a Lady,” police said Wednesday. It had once been housed in the same gallery before it disappeared during a building renovation in 1997, presumed stolen.

Gardeners found the bin bag with the painting after they opened a small, rusted metal door which revealed a cavity that had been hidden by more than 30cm of ivy, Gallinari said.

The painting’s frame was found near the gallery’s skylight shortly after the painting’s disappearance, leading to speculation that the thieves could have entered and left through it. But now, the discovery suggests the painting may have never even left the gallery, according to CNN affiliate Sky TG24.

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The artwork depicts a young woman with rouged cheeks and dark hair, and appeared to be in good condition, Gallinari said.

The colors are still sharp, and there are no obvious signs of damage. It is now being held by the police as they investigate its authenticity.

“If the authenticity is confirmed by the analysis that will be carried out in the coming days, it would be a great result for this city,” city councilor Jonathan Papamarenghi told RAI News. “The fact that the work has been found well preserved opens the scenario to a thousand hypotheses.”

The police, public prosecutor, and cultural heritage agency are now working together to confirm the painting’s identity.

High-quality forgeries have previously been discovered — but there are clues this may be the real thing. A preliminary analysis found stamps on the painting’s back, corresponding to previous exhibitions, according to Sky TG24.
“Portrait of a Lady” is particularly significant because it’s actually two paintings on one canvas. Shortly before it disappeared, an art student discovered that Klimt had created “Portrait of a Lady” by painting over another “lost” piece — “Portrait of a Young Lady,” which hadn’t been seen since 1917, according to local media reports at the time.

To celebrate the discovery and showcase the painting, the Ricci Oddi Modern Art gallery planned an exhibition, to be held in a separate location as the gallery underwent renovation. It was during this time that the painting went missing.

The painting was part of a series of female portraits that Klimt painted in the last few years of his life, some of which were never finished.

CNN has reached out to the National Police.