The wackiest art heist ever: Hardly a "Thomas Crown Affair," this real theft of a masterpiece was a little bit 007 and a whole lot Monty Python

The boosting of Goya's "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington" so captured imaginations it ended up in "Dr. No"



Noah Charney
November 15, 2015 12:00AM (UTC)

The heist was daring, the ransom negotiations bizarre, and the trial surreal—part Monty Python, part Perry Mason, part Ally McBeal, and yet critical to legal history. The only successful theft ever from London’s National Gallery took place on August 21, 1961, when a brazen thief stole Goya’s 1812 "Portrait of the Duke of Wellington." Someone had somehow snuck into the National Gallery through an unlocked men’s room window, evaded security guards and made off with a painting which had just been saved from sale to an American tycoon by the British government. The newly saved portrait of the English war hero went on display at the National Gallery in London on August 3—less than three weeks later, it was stolen.

The press had a field day, and the theft infected the popular imagination. In the first James Bond film, filmed soon after the crime, you can see a copy of the missing Goya portrait decorating Dr. No’s villainous hideout.

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Police were baffled, thinking that some suitably Bondian criminal mastermind was behind the heist. But 10 days after the theft, the London police received the first of many bizarre ransom notes, promising the safe return of the painting in exchange for a ransom payment equal to the amount the country paid for the Goya: £140,000. The notes insisted that the thief or thieves wanted the money solely for charity. A joke, right? Not so. The ransomer identified marks visible only on the back of the painting, proving that it was in his possession. The ransom notes were theatrical and flamboyantly written: “The 'Duke' is safe. His temperature cared for--his future uncertain. … We ask that some nonconformist type of person with the fearless fortitude of a Montgomery start the fund for £140,000. No law can touch him. Propriety may frown--but God must smile.”

The notes made it clear that the criminal thought it nuts that the British government would spend a large sum on a painting when such money could be put to better use. There seemed to be no personal motivation for the theft, only a desire to raise money for charity, but the police refused to negotiate with the ransomer and a merry dance ensued: part true-crime, part farce, all fascinating and set against the backdrop of Swinging Sixties London.

With such a cinematic tale, you’d think that someone would make a movie out of it, or at least write a book. Turns out someone finally has. Meet Alan Hirsch, American lawyer and author, who has been fascinated with the case for years. (Full disclosure: as a specialist in art crime, I was asked to pen the introduction to this forthcoming book, "The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped.")

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“I know ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is a cliché,” Hirsch told me, “but if John Grisham wrote a novel based on this case, people would tell him he’d gone too far. The lead character, the plot, the outcome of the trial--I still can’t believe it and I’ve spent years poring over the documents and talking to people who were there.”

This November marks the 50th anniversary of the trial of Kempton Bunton, a 252-pound Alfred Hitchcock look-alike who confessed to stealing the Goya and returning it in a suitably melodramatic manner. In March 1965, someone calling himself “Mister Bloxham” (an apparent reference to "The Importance of Being Earnest") dropped the painting off at the luggage check of a rail station. A few months later, Bunton dropped in on the police and calmly announced that “I am turning myself in for the Goya.”

Bunton didn’t appear to be the sort of man to steal a famous painting, much less do so by shimmying through a small men’s room window. Though he looked a far cry from Cary Grant and Pierce Brosnan, our paradigm elegant art thieves, this flamboyant, lovable oddball—a retired cab driver and bookie who had several times been jailed for a weird form of conscientious objection (refusal to pay his BBC TV license)--starred in a courtroom drama that had a vein of comedy running through it. He was a working-class hero, claiming not even to have known who this “Wellington fellow” was in Goya’s painting, which he referred to as “Spanish firewood.” He’d swiped it to make a point--the elderly should not have to pay to watch television.

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Bunton’s foil was the judge, Carl Aarvold, who Hirsch introduces as “a former professional rugby player once oddly described by a journalist as ‘not only gracious in defeat but fluent in French, a rare combination.’” Aarvold made the odd judicial decision to instruct the jurors that they must acquit Bunton if they believed that he always intended to return the painting.

“The judge was actually following the letter of Britain’s exceedingly odd larceny statute,” Hirsch says. “Bunton’s defense team wisely latched on to the wording of the law, which said you are guilty of theft only if you intend to ‘permanently deprive’ the owner of his possession. The problem for the defense was that while Bunton returned the painting, he did not return the frame. All of this tied the judge up in knots during his instruction to the jury.”

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Even so, the jury managed to follow his instructions--finding Bunton not guilty of stealing the painting, but guilty of stealing the frame.

Judge Aarvold, for his part, is almost as quotable as Bunton (whose colorful unpublished memoirs Hirsch managed to get hold of, and quotes from liberally, to great effect). In his summing up, the judge said: “Motives, even if they are good, cannot justify theft, and creeping into public galleries in order to extract pictures of value so that you can use them for your own purposes has got to be discouraged.” He then sentenced Bunton to three months.

There are a pair of punchlines to this oddball crime and trial. In 1968, as part of England’s new Theft Act, Parliament included a clause that made 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,” thereby making Bunton’s “borrowing” of the Goya a criminal offense.

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Television licenses were eventually revoked for old age pensioners, satisfying, long after the fact, the unusual ransom demands of Kempton Bunton. Floating on his cloud up in Heaven, Bunton must be looking down upon us with a satisfied smile. For not only was his motive for the theft fulfilled (eventually), but for decades the police believed what he wanted them to: that he was, in fact, the thief. Turns out he may have been cleverer than everyone thought and taken the fall for someone else. How else to explain his size, the bathroom window, and his apparent lack of interest in the painting itself?

“Was Bunton innocent?” Hirsch asks. “It sure looks like it. But just when I thought I had the crime solved and everything figured out. . . .” He pauses. “Can we leave it at that?”


Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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