Italian kitchen holds secret to decades-old art heist

BY Lorna Baldwin  April 2, 2014 at 4:41 PM EDT
Italian officials unveil the recently recovered post-Impressionist works of Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Italian officials unveil the recently recovered post-Impressionist works of Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

For decades, the kitchen of a retired Italian factory worker unwittingly held the secret to a 1970 art heist in London.

On its walls hung two post-Impressionist paintings: one a still life oil-on-canvas by Paul Gauguin, now worth an estimated $14 to $40 million; the second a painting by Pierre Bonnard depicting a little girl in an orchard, currently valued at about $800,000. The paintings were unveiled by officials in Rome on Wednesday after the unnamed autoworker discovered what he had hanging in his kitchen.

Italian Culture minister Dario Franceschini stands next to to the painting by French artist Paul Gauguin 'Fruits sur une table ou nature morte au petit chien.' Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

Italian Culture minister Dario Franceschini stands next to to the painting by French artist Paul Gauguin ‘Fruits sur une table ou nature morte au petit chien.’ Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

The man was the winning bidder at a 1975 auction of unclaimed lost-and-found items by the Italian national railway. He paid 45,000 Italian lire for the two paintings, the equivalent of $100 dollars at the time. He recently told authorities he had no idea of their value, but bought them because he loved art.

Italian authorities speculated the paintings were abandoned by thieves traveling on a train from Paris, France to Turin, Italy once they realized they’d have to go through a border check.

The paintings were stolen from a London home in 1970. The thieves posed as burglar alarm engineers, The New York Times reported that year, and distracted the housekeeper by asking for tea, before nabbing the paintings.

Italian police believe the owners were American author and socialite Terence Kennedy and his wife Mathilda Marks, the daughter of British businessman Michael Marks. Both have since died, leaving it unclear who the rightful heirs are.