Gauguin and Bonnard artworks were recently recovered nearly 45 years after their theft from the home of a London art collector. The artwork by French artists Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard was unassuming and casually displayed in the home of a retired Sicilian Fiat worker, who was completely clueless to their value and origins. Those interested or involved in the art world might be aware that Gauguin was a well-known 19th Century post-impressionist artist while Bonnard was considered among the greatest colorists of modern art.
The tale of the theft of the long-lost masterpieces is an extraordinary one. In 1975, the retired autoworker was employed at Fiat, the Italian carmaker, and he attended an auction where he bought the two colorful paintings for about $30. The paintings were supposedly left unclaimed by train passengers, put away in the Italian Railways lost and found storage facility, and ultimately placed in the lost-property auction. For years, they hung on the retired man’s kitchen wall. One was a still life with fruit and a small dog, which turned out to be the stolen artwork by Gauguin, which is worth an estimated $14 million to $41 million. The other painting showed a woman in white seated in a verdant garden, which is the stolen artwork by Bonnard, which has an estimated value of about $827,000. Until recently, the retired man hung them in his homes in Turin, and later Sicily, upon his retirement without any clue as to their origins. The Italian authorities were notified of the paintings after a relative of the autoworker saw similarities with other Gauguin masterpieces and called in art experts to authenticate the artwork. The identity of the retired autoworker has been withheld from the public.
The Gauguin and Bonnard paintings recently recovered nearly 45 years after their theft were identified by the retired autoworker’s son, who is an architecture student, who was studying a book of paintings by Paul Gauguin last summer and noticed the familiar images. Upon the realization, the family called in experts and contacted the Italian police. Officials in Italy held an unveiling ceremony on Wednesday in Rome to publicly and officially confirm the identity of the two paintings as Gauguin’s “Fruit on a Table or Still Life With a Puppy,” and Bonnard’s “Woman on Two Armchairs,” and the fact that both of the paintings had been reported stolen from a London home in 1970.
The police found a 1970 article in The New York Times by United Press International that reported the theft of the two paintings from a home in Regent’s Park area of London and were able to link the paintings back to the owners from which they were stolen. The original owners have been identified as Mathilda Marks, who was a philanthropist and a daughter of Michael Marks, who was a founder of the Marks & Spencer department store chain, and Terence Kennedy, Marks’ American husband. However, it remains unclear what will happen to the paintings as the owners are no longer alive, and the police have not yet identified an heir.
The Gauguin and Bonnard artwork recently recovered nearly 45 years after their theft could ultimately be returned to the retired factory worker in Sicily if no heirs to the Marks-Kennedy family are found. In the meantime, Italian authorities are holding the paintings while determining how to proceed. The theft was carried out by three individuals posing as a police officer and burglar alarm engineers, who managed to enter the house and deceive a maid while disappearing with the artwork.
Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh