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 worker bought the painting along with one of lesser value by another French artist, Pierre Bonnard, for about $100 at a 1975 Italian state railway auction of unclaimed lost items, said Maj. Massimiliano Quagliarella of the paramilitary Carabinieri’s art theft squad.
Italian authorities on Wednesday estimated the still life’s worth in a range from 10 million to 30 million euros ($14 million to $40 million).
“The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with dining room decor,” Quagliarella said about the now-retired autoworker’s choice of placement in his kitchen, first in Turin, then in Sicily.
The painting is believed to have “traveled” on a Paris-to-Turin train before it was found by railway personnel who put it in the lost-and-found depot, said Gen. Mariano Mossa. 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.
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 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 (about 18 by 20 inches) — 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.
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. 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 treasure ending up in a lost-and-found department is 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.