Impressionist paintings by Gauguin and Bonnard worth over €30m and that were stolen from a house in Regent's Park in 1970 have turned up in the flat of a former Fiat factory worker - who had hung them on his kitchen wall for 40 years, it has been revealed.
Incredibly, the works by the two French masters are thought to have been taken through France on a train and ended up in Turin in northern Italy only to be left on board. Train staff then stored them in a rail depot until auctioning them off in 1975.
It is suggested that an art-loving Fiat factory worker took a liking to them and snapped them up for a very reasonable £25. The paintings, Paul Gauguin's Fruits Sur Une Table and Pierre Bonnard's La Femme Aux Deux Fauteuils, are today worth an estimated €30m and €650,000 respectively.
The Fiat employee, who has not been named, first kept the works in his kitchen in Turin, before moving to Sicily when he retired - and there affording the paintings the same position in his new home.
The Italian authorities first took notice of the paintings last summer when members of the Carabinieri TPC, a cultural heritage protection police force, saw photos of the works.
“From the preliminary information, it appeared that the works shown were purchased in 1975 for the modest sum of 45,000 lire (€25),” said Brigadier General Mariano Mossa, commander of the Carabinieri TPC.
“It's an incredible story, an amazing recovery. A symbol of all the work which Italian art police have put in over the years behind the scenes,” Italy's Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told journalists.
Brigadier General Mossa said the investigation into how the paintings ended up in the kitchen of the factory worker were still ongoing. “We need to check the means by which he purchased them and whether this was done in good faith,” he said, “in addition to reconstructing the stages by which the works, arrived in Italy after they were stolen.”
He said that magistrates would need to establish to whom the paintings belonged. “Ongoing investigations in collaboration with the British police suggest that the London couple from whom the works were stolen in 1970 do not have any heirs,” he added.
Gauguin was a post-impressionist master known for his use of bold colours, exaggerated body proportions that helped to pave the way for the Primitivism art movement. He often worked in exotic environments, and spent time living and painting in Tahiti.
His fellow Frenchman Pierre Bonnard was a member of the group of artists called the Nabis and afterwards a leader of the Intimists; he is generally regarded as one of the greatest colourists of modern art. His work typically featured intimate, sunlit domestic interiors and still life.
Italy's TPC heritage police manage the largest data bank on stolen art in the world, holding details on some 5.7 million objects. Last year they found a painting by Russian-born Jewish artist Marc Chagall, Le Nu au Bouquet, in a private collector's home in Bologna that had been stolen from a US tycoon's yacht in Italy in 2002.
They also investigated the theft of possibly thousands of rare books from the Girolamini Library in Naples, which were allegedly smuggled out and sold internationally by its former director.