From the National Gallery to Dr No's lair
The 21st of August is the anniversary of two shocking art thefts: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa stolen from the Louvre 100 years ago, and Francisco de Goya's The Duke of Wellington taken from the National Gallery, London, exactly 50 years later. The two thefts share more than the same date. Both thieves concealed the famous paintings for several years without being caught and both decided to return them: the Duke was deposited in the left-luggage office of New Street station in Birmingham. More significantly, once they had confessed, the thieves puzzled the authorities by not matching the expected profile of being debonair figures such as EA Hornung's Arthur Raffles, or Thomas Crown (whether Steve McQueen or Pierce Brosnan).
When in July 1965 a 61-year-old retired truck driver announced at West End Central police station that he had stolen the Goya, it was hard for the police to take Kempton Bunton seriously as he differed so much from the presumed image of whoever it was who had sent a sequence of notes, written in capitals, to various newspapers.
Although the Mona Lisa theft is considerably more famous, the loss of the Goya is significant. It was a fundamental shock to the National Gallery: its first ever theft, and the painting had been taken only 19 days after going on display. The work had become prominent earlier in the year when a New York collector, Charles Wrightsman, bid �140,000 for it at auction. He graciously ceded it to the National Gallery when the Wolfson Foundation offered �100,000, and the government was embarrassed into offering a special Treasury grant of �40,000, thus "saving" the Duke from export. A reward of �5,000 was offered by the Metropolitan Police for its immediate return.
Following the theft, a government enquiry, led by Lord Bridges, examined how the thief, having apparently left a window unlatched in the Gents on a previous day, was able in the early hours of the morning to exploit building works at the rear of the gallery, remove the painting and scale the wall on St Martin's Street. Philip Hendy, as director, offered his resignation, but the trustees, led by Lord Robbins, refused to accept it. However, a number of important improvements to security were introduced, including a night patrol with a dog, and the secondment of a senior police officer as security adviser for all the national collections, a post which has evolved into the role of national security adviser.
The person claiming to hold the painting had a mission, and the first of a sequence of notes was posted on 31 August. The thief explained that: "The act is an attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity . . . the picture is not, and will not be for sale ? it is for ransom ? �140,000 ? to be given to charity." He later claimed that: "My sole object in all this was to set up a charity to buy television licences for old and poor people who seem to be neglected in an affluent society."
The trauma for the gallery was matched by speculation about the theft and the thief. In February 1962 the Sunday Telegraph carried a piece reporting that the theft was to do with controversial restoration policies at the gallery. And in December 1963 the New Statesman reported that "Spike Milligan would like to contact those who have the missing Goya portrait in their possession. He sympathises with them and would like to attempt to meet them with a view to raising money independently . . . to be donated to a charity of their choosing. This is a sincere offer and done without the connivance of the police or the authorities." It came to nothing, as also did the offer from the Royal Academy that submission to the Summer Exhibition might be a discreet route for the painting's safe return.
A note from Kempton Bunton of July 1963 enclosed a label from the back of the painting. A fourth note suggested how it might be returned: �140,000 to be given to an agreed charity plus immunity from prosecution. Bunton encouraged the chairman, Lord Robbins, to "assert thyself and get the damn thing on view again. I am offering three pennyworth of old Spanish firewood, in exchange for �140,000 of human happiness". In March 1965 he posted in Darlington a note marked as "5th & Final Com": "Goya's Wellington is safe. I have looked upon this affair as an adventurous prank ? must the authoritys [sic] refuse to see it this way. I know now that I am in the wrong, but I have gone too far to retreat." He proposed the anonymous return of the painting followed by an exhibition at which members of the public would pay five shillings each to view it, the funds being sent to a charity . . . and the thief not to be pursued.
The Daily Mirror enthusiastically took up the challenge of organising such an exhibition and suggested that, "this great national art treasure should be taken immediately to the shop of any newsagent in the land". Although neither the police nor the National Gallery could offer immunity from prosecution, the Mirror became a communication route, and in May a left-luggage ticket from New Street station arrived at their offices, leading to the recovery of the painting, in good condition, but without its frame. It was shown at a press conference on 24 May 1965, and went back on display, almost four years after it had been stolen.
When Kempton Bunton offered himself to the police in July, he had a statement with him explaining: "(1) My secret has leaked ? I wouldn't like a certain gentleman to benefit financially by speaking to the law. (2) I am sick and tired of the whole affair. (3) By surrendering in London I avoid the stigma of being brought here in 'chains'." He was charged on five counts: with the theft of the picture; with the theft of the frame; with demanding money from Lord Robbins with menaces; with demanding money with menaces similarly from the editor of the Daily Mirror; and with "causing a nuisance to the public by the unlawful removal and wrongful detaining of a painting on display at the National Gallery".
Bunton had form, having served some time in prison after repeatedly refusing to pay his licence fee. He did well to be represented by Jeremy Hutchinson QC, who had made a name for himself in the successful defence of Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960. In court he worked both to undermine some of the charges and to persuade the jury to be sympathetic to Bunton. Recalling the trial recently, Hutchinson said that Bunton "was just rather a darling. I had an affection for him . . . I had a great ace up my sleeve which was that the ex-president of the Royal Academy, Sir Gerald Kelly, had written to the Sunday Times saying that this painting wasn't worth �140,000, and that he had doubts about its authenticity."
Hutchinson wanted to demonstrate mainly that the accusation of "stealing", in the form of larceny in this instance, would need proof of criminal intent to sell or keep the work. He made it clear that Bunton took the painting only because he wanted the �140,000 paid to OAPs, and had no intention of keeping it. He demonstrated that, in the strictest sense of the law, it was not a theft as Bunton had merely "borrowed" the painting.
Bunton was acquitted on the other four charges, but convicted of stealing the frame, and sentenced to three months' imprisonment. However, the judge summed up the general view ? held with vehemence by the National Gallery ? when he said that there cannot be people "creeping into art galleries" and removing paintings. And the case led to an important clause being inserted into the Theft Act of 1968, making it illegal to "remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access".
Reality and fiction often overlap in cases of art theft. However the link between the two was made very specific when in Dr No, the first of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels to be produced as a film in 1962, the evil scientist's underwater lair at Crab Key in Jamaica provides the setting for an unexpected encounter. Sean Connery, as Bond, pauses as he walks through the dining room to admire a portrait on an easel ? it is Goya's The Duke of Wellington. The image fuels the commonly held view that thefts of great works of art are carried out at the behest of criminal collectors ? a notion that has rarely been found to be true.
Even though a detailed account of how Bunton accomplished the theft was published in 1977, posthumously, it is possible that he was not the thief. He might have used the painting to promote his cause and confessed to cover up for another. The judge pronounced that the theft was a "remarkable feat" for the 17-stone Bunton, who had retired from driving because of injury. In 1969, the press reported that someone had made a statement claiming to be the actual thief, but the police did not pursue it. Hutchinson recalls seeing a statement at the time of the trial claiming that someone else obtained the painting and passed it to Bunton, but without clarifying what really happened. Had two people fallen out over how best to exploit the stolen Duke? Bunton described in the Old Bailey how he had asked a young man to take a parcel (containing the wrapped painting) to the luggage office for him. Could this have been a collaborator of some kind?
The myths that surround art theft ? whether the obsessive desire for possession caused by great works of art, or the notion of an underworld in parallel existence to our own ? need to be unpicked with great care. In the case of the Goya, although taken 50 years ago there may still be more to learn.
Sandy Nairne is director of the National Portrait Gallery. His Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners is published by Reaktion Press.