Italian Retiree Gets to Keep Stolen Gauguin Painting

The recovered Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard paintings being unveiled by Italian officials. The current owner, a factory worker, hopes the artwork will be returned to him. Photo: Andreas Solaro, courtesy Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.
The recovered Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard paintings being unveiled by Italian officials. The current owner, a factory worker, hopes the artwork will be returned to him. Photo: Andreas Solaro, courtesy Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

An Italian retiree who had the good fortune to unwittingly purchase a stolen Paul Gauguin masterpiece has been awarded ownership of the painting, reports the Telegraph.

The paintings were stolen by con men in 1970, from the London home of Marks and Spencer department store heiress Mathilda Marks. The thieves took the paintings to France, and were on a train bound for Turin when they abandoned them, fearing capture.

After years in the lost property office, the canvases made their way to a national railway auction. A Fiat factory worker, identified only as “Nicolo,” so as not to attract thieves, was an auction regular. Despite warnings the paintings were worthless rubbish, he bought the canvases for a mere 45,000 lira, or about $32 in today’s money.

Today, experts estimate that Gauguin’s Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien (Fruits on a table or still life with a small dog), 1889 is worth €35 million ($43.5 million), while Bonnard’s La femme aux deux fauteuils (Woman with two armchairs) is valued at €600,000 ($747,000).

“Maybe I had an intuition. I just liked them. When I took them home I said to myself, ‘I don’t care who painted them, I find them beautiful,'” he told La Repubblica, calling the purchase “a stroke of luck.”

After years of living with the paintings hanging on the kitchen wall, Nicolo and his art history-minded son grew curious, and began doing some research. Soon, they became convinced they they owned the general article, and turned the works over to the arts and antiquities division of the police, who confirmed their suspicions (see “Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard Paintings Found in Italy“).

An effort was made to return the canvases to their rightful owner, but Marks and her husband, Terence Kennedy, never had children, and London’s Metropolitan police were unable to track down the couple’s heir.

All along, Nicolo remained hopeful he would be allowed to keep the paintings (see “Italian Factory Worker Hopes to Keep Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard Paintings“), telling La Repubblica “they were bought in good faith” and “the institutions can’t deny this.” Now that the courts have ruled in his favor, he has begun talks with prospective buyers for the Gauguin. The 70-year-old hopes to take his wife on a much-delayed honeymoon to Vienna and Trieste, Italy; buy a farm near his Syracuse home in Sicily; and provide for his children and grandchildren.

The Bonnard, however, he will keep for sentimental reasons.


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