It was just after sunrise on a June morning in 1975, when “Nicolo,” whose real name cannot be revealed because of Italy’s privacy laws, finished working the night shift on the assembly line at the FIAT auto factory in Turin. As he often did, he stopped by the “after work auction” run by the Italian state police where items found on the trains were sold to the highest bidder. There, among the watches, radios and lost coats, Nicolo spotted two paintings he thought would look nice above his dining room table. The auctioneer told him they were just “garbage” found on a midnight train from Paris to Turin, and started the bidding at 50,000 lire ($35). Nicolo loved art, but he only made 200,000 lire or $143 a month and he couldn’t justify spending a quarter of his monthly salary, so he bid 30,000 lire ($20) for the two. He and another bidder battled until Nicolo finally won the paintings for 45,000 lire—around $32. He took them home and hung them on his wall. “I have a photo album of my most fond memories: the kids’ birthdays, anniversaries, parties, Christmas lunches,” he told La Repubblica newspaper. “In the background there were always the two paintings.”
When Nicolo retired and moved home to Siracusa, Sicily, he brought the paintings with him. This time, he hung them in his kitchen above the same table he had moved from Turin. His son, age 15, who had taken an art appreciation class, thought there was something peculiar about the one with a young girl sitting on a garden chair. It was signed “Bonnato” or so he thought, but when he researched it, he only found “Bonnard,” a French painter he had never heard of. He bought a book and was surprised to find a picture of the artist Pierre Bonnard sitting on the same chairs in the same garden as the painting that hung on his father’s wall.
“That’s the garden in our picture,” Nicolo said his son told him. They eventually learned that the painting they owned was called “The Girl With Two Chairs.” They studied the other painting, which was unsigned, and learned that it was actually Paul Gauguin’s “Still Life of Fruit on A Table With A Small Dog.” The family called a special art theft squad with the Italian Culture ministry, which deals with counterfeit and stolen art; the official verified that the canvases were originals and worth as much as $50 million.
The paintings had been sensationally stolen in 1970 from a Regents Park house in London belonging to Terence Kennedy and Mathilda Marks, the daughter of Michael Marks, co-founder of Marks & Spencer. Marks bought the paintings for an undisclosed sum at a Sotheby’s auction in 1961 and gifted them to his daughter. They were stolen when three men posing as burglar-alarm technicians came to the Kennedy Marks residence—when only the housekeeper was home—claiming they were there for a planned maintenance call. When they sent the housekeeper to the kitchen to make them tea, the men cut the paintings out of their frames and made off with them. The Kennedy Marks family apparently claimed insurance money for the theft, and since there are no known descendants to claim them, the paintings rightly belong to Nicolo—who has proof of ownership in the form of a bill of sale and the state auction records that show he bought them legitimately. “I’d like to put them back in my kitchen, but I don’t know if they will let me,” he said. “Or maybe I’ll offer one to a museum, or sell one.”
The shocking discovery follows a number of high-profile art theft cases in Europe in recent months. On Monday, the German police reached a deal with a Nazi art dealer’s son, Cornelius Gurlitt, which will allow him to restitute more than 1,280 works of art stolen from Jewish owners during World War II without facing criminal penalties. The pieces include masterpieces by Picasso, Gauguin and Marc Chagall. Last year in Italy, Chagall’s “Le Nu au Bouquet,” which was stolen from an American yacht in the Mediterranean in 2002, was found in the home of a private art collector who bought it at a legitimate auction.
“It’s an incredible story,” said Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, after the autoworker’s art was discovered. “It is a symbol of all the work which Italian art police have put in over the years behind the scenes.”
Italy’s art theft squad keeps the world’s largest database, with more than 5.7 million lost, stolen or missing objects from all over the world. Stolen art is fourth behind weapons, drugs and fake financial bonds and other documents on the global market of illegal sales, according to Italy’s cultural ministry, which will introduce an app this week to help everyday citizens play detective to help find and identify stolen works. The multi-platform app, which is called iTPC after Italy’s patrimony police, allows users to snap a photo of a potential stolen painting that will be checked against the culture ministry’s extensive database. If there is a match, authorities will be alerted and the location of the potential stolen art will be pinpointed through the app’s location services. Owners of legitimate art will be asked to create identity cards for each of their works that will be added to the database. “It represents a first for those who hope to contribute to the fight against heritage crimes,” said Mariano Mossa, head of the art theft squad. And undoubtedly a powerful deterrent for those who are hoping their stolen art stays hidden.