In 1975 a factory worker for Fiat bought two paintings at an auction of lost property in Turin. They cost him 45,000 lire, the equivalent of £20. The two paintings turned out to be worth considerably more. One was by Paul Gauguin, and is now valued at £25m, while the other was by Pierre Bonnard, and worth £500,000.
The paintings had been stolen from the house of Terence Kennedy, widower of the Marks & Spencer’s heiress, in 1970, when thieves posed as burglar alarm mechanics and removed the pictures from their frames. The pictures were then smuggled into France. The thieves panicked at the Italian border, and they were abandoned on a train heading to Turin. They languished in lost property department for five years.
The buyer’s son suspected that they might be important, and contacted the Caribinieri. Their attribution was confirmed in April last year, and in December Italian authorities ruled that they belonged to the buyer, as no UK claimants had come forward.
However, John Henderson has just put forward a claim to the paintings. He was appointed Terrence Kennedy’s sole heir in 1997. No record of an insurance payment has been unearthed yet, so under English law, Henderson remains the rightful owner of the pictures.
On the basis of Italian civil code, however, the paintings belong to the current owner for 10 years if they are not aware that they have been stolen, and after 20 years if they are.