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October 22, 2014
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Stolen Gauguin on kitchen wall for years

Carabinieri (Italian paramilitary police) officers stand by a Paul Gauguin still life (left) and a Pierre Bonnard painting during a press conference in Rome, yesterday.

Bought in Italy for US$100 in 1975, the painting is worth US$10-30 million

A Paul Gauguin still life stolen from a wealthy collector’s home in Britain decades ago has been recovered after hanging for 40 years in a Sicilian autoworker’s kitchen.

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

Italian authorities yesterday estimated the still life’s worth in a range from 10 million euros to 30 million euros (US$14 million to US$40 million). “The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with dining room decor,” Quagliarella told reporters about the now-retired autoworker’s choice of placement in his kitchen, first in Turin, then in Sicily.

The two paintings were stolen from a London home and found in a train in the northern Italian city of Turin, where their smuggler apparently abandoned them because of a border control or some other check, said Gen. Mariano Mossa of the Carabinieri military police speculated. Railway workers in Turin found the paintings and placed them in the lost-and-found deposit. Without knowing their value, the state railway company later sold them at an auction to the unidentified factory worker.

The man told police he bought the paintings because he loved art and hung them in his kitchen first in Turin and later, after he retired, in Sicily. Investigators were alerted to the missing paintings by experts examining them for the man’s son, who became curious about the origin of the Gauguin painting when he saw a very similar one in an old catalogue, police said. 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 and ancient artifacts.

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 46.5 by 53 centimetres — 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, 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. “These two masterpieces have unique, unimaginable stories,” Franceschini told reporters when the pilfered paintings were displayed at his ministry yesterday.

London’s Scotland Yard has been in contact with the Italian police but said in a statement yesterday it had not been possible to trace the records of the theft. Italian police found a photo of the painting in a June 28, 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.

Marinello said there could be a battle for ownership of the recovered paintings in Italy. Under Italian law, the autoworker 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,” Marinello said.

Herald with AP, Reuters

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