Wednesday 11 December 2019

Stolen Gauguin on kitchen wall

An officer stands by the stolen Paul Gauguin still life recovered by authorities. (AP/Daniele Leone, Lapresse)
An officer stands by the stolen Paul Gauguin still life recovered by authorities. (AP/Daniele Leone, Lapresse)

A Paul Gauguin painting stolen from a wealthy collector's home in Britain decades ago has been recovered after hanging for 40 years in a Sicilian car worker's kitchen.

The worker bought the painting along with one of lesser value by another French artist, Pierre Bonnard, for about 100 US dollars at a 1975 Italian state railway auction of unclaimed lost items, said Major Massimiliano Quagliarella, of the paramilitary Carabinieri art theft squad.

Italian authorities have estimated the still life's worth in a range from 14 million US dollars (£8.4 million) to 40 million US dollars (£24 million).

"The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with the dining room decor," Maj Quagliarella said.

The painting is believed to have "travelled" on a Paris to Turin train before it was found by railway personnel who put it in the lost-and-found depot, said General Mariano Mossa.

After the car worker retired to Sicily, the man's son, who studied architecture at university, noticed a telling detail: a dog curled up in the corner.

Dogs were sometimes a signature motif for Gauguin's work.

The man's son contacted an art expert to get an evaluation. The expert concluded the work was likely a Gauguin painting, and contacted the Carabinieri's division dedicated to recovering stolen and trafficked art.

The painting - named Fruit on a Table with a Small Dog - depicts two bowls brimming with brightly coloured grapes, apples and other pieces of fruit.

On the front is a painted "89"- an indication it was created in 1889. It now measures 46.5cm by 53cm - slightly smaller than when Gauguin created it because the thieves cut the painting out of its frame, police said.

The painting will remain in the custody of the art squad because the police have yet to receive an official notice that it is stolen, Maj Quagliarella said. The art squad traced it using newspaper articles in 1970 reporting the theft of a wealthy London family's art collection.

Italy's culture minister, Dario Franceschini, called the painting's recovery an "extraordinary" find.

Scotland Yard has been in contact with the Italian police but said in a statement it had not been possible to trace the records of the theft. Italian police found a photo of the painting in a 1961 auction in London.

Chris Marinello, of Art Recovery International, which helps track down stolen artworks, said the story of treasures ending up in lost-and-found departments was not unprecedented.

In 2006, the Duchess of Argyll lost a tiara, a diamond Cartier brooch and other jewels at Glasgow Airport. Six years later they were put up for auction - it turned out they had been sold by the airport as unclaimed property. After negotiations, they were returned to the duchess.

Mr Marinello said there could be a battle for ownership of the recovered paintings in Italy. Under Italian law, the car worker could have a right to them if he could prove he bought them in good faith, he said.

"I'm sure this is not the last we will hear of this," Mr Marinello said.

PA Media

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