ROME: 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 French artist’s “Fruit on a table or small dog” was stolen from a house in London along with “Woman with two chairs” by Pierre Bonnard and they were recovered together in Italy from the pensioner, who used to work for Italian auto giant Fiat.
The Gauguin painting is worth between $13 million and $41 million while the Bonnard is valued at some $825,000, Italy’s heritage police announced Wednesday.
The paintings turned up in a lost property department at a train station and were sold at auction in 1975 to the Fiat factory worker, who bought them for 45,000 Italian lire, or just over $31.
“The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with dining room decor,” Maj. Massimiliano Quagliarella of the paramilitary Carabinieri art theft squad said about the now-retired autoworker’s choice of placement in his kitchen, first in Turin, then in Sicily.
“The two paintings were presumably left on a train from Paris to Turin,” said Mariano Mossa, who heads up the heritage police. They were found by railway personnel who put them in the lost-and-found depot.
After the autoworker retired to Sicily, the man’s son, who studied architecture at university, noticed a telling detail: a dog curled up in the corner of one of the paintings.
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 depicts two bowls brimming with brightly colored 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 centimeters – slightly smaller than when Gauguin created it because the thieves cut the painting out of its frame, police said.
“As a simple factory worker, I am proud of having been able to appreciate and buy two masterpieces even though I did not know what they were,” the 70-year-old pensioner was quoted as saying Thursday by Italian daily La Stampa.
“What makes me most happy is having had the pleasure of living with them for so long.”
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.
“It’s an incredible story, an amazing recovery,” Franceschini said. “A symbol of all the work which Italian art police have put in over the years behind the scenes.”
London’s Scotland Yard has been in contact with the Italian police but said in a statement Wednesday it had not been possible to trace the records of the theft.
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.
The man’s son told Italian news website Live Sicilia Thursday that the family might sell off “one of the two” paintings, following the conclusion of an investigation by Rome prosecutors who are looking into whether they were bought in good faith.
But his father told La Stampa that he was concerned about the prospect of holding on to them. “Keep them at my place? Impossible!”