ROME – A Paul Gauguin still life stolen from a wealthy collector’s home in Britain 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 $100 at a legitimate 1975 Italian state railway auction of unclaimed lost items, said Maj. Massimiliano Quagliarella of the art theft squad. Italian authorities estimated Wednesday that the still life is worth $14 million to $40 million.
“The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with dining room décor,” Quagliarella said of the painting’s placement in the home.
The painting is believed to have “traveled” on a Paris-to-Turin train before the worker purchased it, said Gen. Mariano Mossa. When 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. Dogs were sometimes a signature motif for Gauguin’s work.
The man’s son contacted an art expert to give an evaluation. The expert concluded the work was likely a Gauguin painting, and contacted the police.
The painting depicts two bowls, brimming with brightly colored grapes, apples and other pieces of fruit, posed on a table. In black on the canvas is painted “89” an indication that it was painted in 1889. It now measures about 18 by 20 inches, slightly smaller than the work as Gauguin created it, because the thieves had cut it 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 collection.
London’s Scotland Yard have been in contact with Italian police, but said in a statement Wednesday it had not been possible to trace the records of the theft in the 1970s. Italian police said they 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 was remarkable but not unprecedented.
In 2006, the duchess of Argyll lost several valuable 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.
Marinello said the autoworker could have a right to the recovered paintings under Italian law if he could prove he bought them in good faith.