Million Dollar Christmas Gift – Italian Pensioner Granted Ownership of $44 Million Painting

Paul Gaugin, Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien, 1889

Paul Gaugin, Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien, 1889

An Italian pensioner who unknowingly acquired a Gauguin masterpiece after it was stolen from a London flat more than 40 years ago has received the Christmas gift of a lifetime after being awarded ownership of the painting, which is estimated to be worth $44 million.

The man, who has requested anonymity out of fear that the painting could attract thieves, now plans to sell it and hopes his life will be transformed after decades of working grueling night shifts in a Fiat factory.

The pensioner bought the 1889 Gauguin painting, entitled “Fruits on a table or still life with a small dog,” at an auction in Turin in 1975, along with a work by another French artist, Pierre Bonnard, entitled “Woman with two armchairs,” now thought to be worth around $750,000.

Identified only as Nicolo, he plans to take his wife on the honeymoon they could never afford – a journey between Trieste, in Italy’s north-east, and Vienna. “I’m already in negotiations over the sale of the Gauguin,” the 70-year-old said. “Lots of private collectors have contacted me and I’m considering the offers along with my family.” He said he would keep the Bonnard because it had great sentimental value.

Nicolo also plans to buy a farm outside his home town of Syracuse in Sicily and hopes to use the rest of his anticipated fortune to assure a comfortable future for his children and grandchildren. He admitted that it had been “a stroke of luck” that he had bought the paintings, which auctioneers had told him were worthless 40 years ago.

“Maybe I had an intuition. I just liked them. When I took them home I said to myself, ‘I don’t care who painted them, I find them beautiful,'” he said.

The paintings were originally owned by Mathilda Marks, an heiress to the Marks and Spencer empire, but were stolen by con men from the flat she shared with her American husband in London in 1970. The thieves smuggled the paintings by train through France, intending to enter Italy, but panicked while waiting to cross the border and left them on a train heading towards Turin. They were found by railway inspectors and languished for years in a dusty lost property office before being put up for auction by Italy’s national railway network in 1975.

The Fiat worker, who regularly attended the railway auctions as a hobby, bought the two masterpieces for 45,000 lire – just $30 in today’s money. Not realizing how valuable they were, he hung them on the wall of his kitchen, first in Turin and later, after he retired, at his home in Syracuse. It was the curiosity of his son, who had a keen interest in art history, that eventually made him think that the paintings might be worth something.

By comparing a dedication on the Gauguin painting with examples of the artist’s handwriting, they realized that they had a masterpiece by one of the world’s best known artists on their hands. They contacted a special unit of the Italian police that deals with art and antiquities, who along with art experts confirmed earlier this year that the works were by Gauguin and Bonnard. The two paintings were then sequestered by the police, who set about trying to establish their rightful ownership. They liaised with the Metropolitan Police in London to try to discover whether anyone might have a legitimate claim to the artworks. But Mrs. Marks and her American husband, Terence Kennedy, had no children and no claimants came forward.

“I acquired the painting in good faith and that has been recognized by the authorities in Rome,” Nicolo said.

The decision to award the paintings to the pensioner was made by a court in Rome, based on information provided by a special unit of the Carabinieri police that specializes in art and antiquities.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said that had any claimants come forward, the information would have been passed to the Italian police. But none did, so the force had no objections to the paintings being returned to the ex-factory worker.



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