An Italian retiree who had the good fortune to unwittingly purchase a stolen Paul Gauguin masterpiece has been awarded ownership of the painting. Known only as Nicolo, he went to a railway auction and bought two paintings for about $35. The paintings had been originally owned by Mathilda Marks, daughter of Michael Marks, the founder of Marks & Spencer, and were stolen in 1970 from the apartment where her American husband lived in Regent’s Park, London. The thieves smuggled the paintings by train through France, intending to go to Italy, but panicked while waiting to cross the border. They left them on a train heading toward Turin. The railway auctioneers told Nicolo that they were worthless, but little did they know that they were in fact an 1889 Gauguin entitled “Fruit on a Table” worth $43 million and a still life with a dog, a work by Pierre Bonnard entitled “Woman with two armchairs”, now thought to be worth in excess of $750,000.
Not realizing what he had, Nicolo hung them on the wall of his kitchen in two different residences for over 40 years. It was his curious son, who had an interest in art history, that eventually made him think the paintings might be more valuable. After comparing a dedication on the Gauguin with examples of the artist’s handwriting, they realized they might have a masterpiece on their hands. The paintings were then sequestered by police, who went about trying to establish their rightful owners. They worked with Scotland Yard in London to try to discover whether anyone might have a legitimate claim to the artworks. But Marks and her husband, Terence Kennedy, had no children and no one came forward to claim them, so Nicolo was allowed to keep both works.
“I acquired the painting in good faith and that has been recognized by the authorities in Rome. “I’m already in negotiations over the sale of the Gauguin. Lots of private collectors have contacted me and I’m considering the offers along with my family.””
He plans to sell the Gauguin to take his wife on the honeymoon they could never afford: a journey between Trieste, in Italy’s northeast, and Vienna. (I think he could go around the world several times in first class)
And he said he would keep the Bonnard because it had sentimental value. He also plans to buy a farm outside Syracuse and hopes will use the rest of his newfound fortune to assure a comfortable future for his children and grandchildren. (The kids will spend it up before the grandkids get it and that Bonnard will be sold pretty soon, right?)
“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.'”
Well, that’s the way art should work… except when you discover you could buy your whole village and then some with the proceeds, then art becomes a commodity like any other. The moral of the story? Buy art and the worst that happens is that you enjoy looking at it.