60 years since a portrait by Goya was stolen from the National Gallery, resulting in changes to the legal definition of theft

Saturday, (21 August) marked 60 years since Francisco Goya’s (1746-1828) portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery in London by Kempton Bunton, a taxi driver from Newcastle who stashed the painting in his wardrobe. The theft became one of the most infamous art heists in British history.

In remembrance of the occasion, the National Gallery has shared a number of documents relating to theft, including photographed papers of a reward notice from the Metropolitan Police and a handwritten ransom note. This also comes ahead of the release next year of a film about the heist, The Duke starring Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent.

Goya’s portrait depicts Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, one of the most prominent military and political figures in nineteenth-century Britain. The portrait was completed shortly after Wellington was victorious at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812, which marked a turning point in the Peninsular War in Spain (1808-1814). The Peninsular War began after the French army invaded Spain in 1808 and Joseph I, the brother of the French Emperor Napoleon, was installed as King. The war was a period of extreme violence and brutal conflict, as is aptly documented by Goya himself in his Los desastres de la guerra (‘The Disasters of War’) print series.

The painting was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in 1961 and was purchased by the American Charles Wrightson for £140,000 (about £2.5 million today). To prevent this national treasure leaving the country, the government intervened and raised the money to purchase the painting for the nation. It had been on display for only 19 days at the National Gallery before Kempton Bunton broke in and stole it. Bunton’s motives – which became evident through his ransom notes – had a distinctly Robin Hood feel to them. He was outraged at the amount of money the government had spent on this work of art, when so many elderly people were struggling. In particular, he was affronted by the BBC television licence fee. Bunton’s ransom note – which was shown on the National Gallery’s Instagram account stories over the weekend – demanded a donation of £140,000 to charity in exchange for the painting’s return, claiming: “this act is an attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity”.

Numerous people were thought to be responsible for the theft, from a former SAS paratrooper to a gang of Riviera criminals. It even infiltrated popular culture, and was referenced in the 1962 James Bond film Dr No, where Bond – played by Sean Connery – spots the painting on display in the villain’s Caribbean house. However, in 1965 Bunton returned the painting, and later admitted he was the culprit. In his trial, Bunton’s defence barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson, argued that Bunton could not be convicted of theft since he had simply borrowed the painting from the gallery, always planning to return it. Bunton was cleared of stealing the painting, and convicted just for the theft of the frame, which has never been found. He served three months in prison, and died in 1976.

Whilst Bunton’s desire for free TV licenses for the elderly did not come into fruition until over 40 years later, his actions resulted in the change of the legal definition of theft. The Theft Act 1968 contained a new provision, which stated that: “any person who without lawful authority removes any article displayed to the public… shall be guilty of an offence.” The theft also resulted in serious reforms to security at art galleries and museums, including the appointment of a security adviser on all national collections. Roger Michell, the director of the upcoming film, summarises the bizarre nature of theft fittingly, stating that: “It’s amazing to think this painting was once hidden at the back of a wardrobe in Newcastle. And perhaps even more amazing that 60 years later I got to make a film about how it ended up there!”

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