The only successful theft from London’s National Gallery took place on 21 August 1961, when a brazen thief stole Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Forty-nine years later, on 19 October of this year, the thief’s ransom demands were protected well into the future.
One of the most bizarre incidents in the history of art theft, the Goya heist baffled police. Someone had snuck into the National Gallery through an unlocked bathroom window, had 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 sale of the Spanish painting, property of the Duke of Leeds, had been frozen in order for the British nation to match the sale price, thereby keeping the painting in England. £140,000 had been hastily raised (the equivalent of around £2 million today), and the 1812 portrait of the English war hero was saved. It went on display at the National Gallery in London on 3 August—less than three weeks later, it was gone.
The Press had a field day, and the theft infected the popular imagination. In the background of the first James Bond film, Dr No, which was filmed soon after the crime, one can see a copy of the missing Goya portrait decorating Dr No’s villainous hideout.
Then the London police received the first of many bizarre ransom notes. They promised the safe return of the painting in exchange for discounted television licenses for old age pensioners.
Surely this was a joke? But the ransomer was able to identify marks visible only on the back of the painting, proving that it was in his possession. The ransomer, whose notes were theatrical and flamboyantly written, thought it outrageous that the British government would spend such a sum on a painting when retired British citizens had to pay to watch television. The Goya would be returned, wrote the ransomer, if a charitable fund of equivalent value, £140,000, were established to pay for television licenses for old age pensioners. There seemed to be no personal motivation for the theft, only outrage at the government’s TV license scheme.
But the police would not negotiate. A second ransom letter arrived, which read:
Goya Com 3. The Duke is safe. His temperature cared for – his future uncertain. The painting is neither to be cloakroomed or kiosked, as such would defeat our purpose and leave us to ever open arrest. We want pardon or the right to leave the country – banishment? 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.
Still the police would not respond. A third ransom letter turned cheeky:
Terms are same. . . . An amnesty in my case would not be out of order. The Yard are looking for a needle in a haystack, but they haven’t a clue where the haystack is. . . I am offering three-pennyworth of old Spanish firewood in exchange for 140,000 of human happiness. A real bargain compared to a near million for a scruffy piece of Italian cardboard.
But while the police would not budge, they were no closer to identifying the thief. In 1965, however, a note arrived at the offices of the Daily Mirror newspaper with a luggage check ticket for the Birmingham rail station. The ticket yielded a surprising package at the Birmingham—the stolen Goya. It had been deposited by someone identifying himself as a “Mister Bloxham,” likely a reference to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in which an infant is found in a handbag at a rail station luggage check. The painting had been recovered, handed over as a sign of good will by the thief, who realized that his demands, which he felt were entirely reasonable and noble, would not be met. But who was the thief?
On 19 July 1965 a portly, 61-year old retired cab driver who bore a striking resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock walked into a police station to turn himself in. Kempton Bunton, a cuddly 252 pound grandfather, did not match the expectations of an ingenious, if eccentric, art thief. He had, perhaps unsurprisingly, been fined twice for refusing to pay his own TV license. The theft seemed to have been motivated solely by charity, although there are those who believe that he took the fall for someone else.
Bunton was not worried about being tried, he told the police, because he knew of an odd loophole in British law. In court, he was found not guilty of having stolen the painting, because the judge noted an antiquated clause which stated that if the jury believed that Bunton always intended to return the painting if his ransom negotiations failed (and he did return the painting) then they must acquit. Heeding the judge’s advice, the jury found Bunton not guilty of having stolen the Goya—but he was found guilty of having stolen the painting’s frame, which was never returned. He was given a slap on the wrist, three months in prison, and was gently scolded by the judge, who 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.”
This comical theft would play a major role in shaping UK law. In 1968, as part of England’s new Theft Act, Parliament included a clause which 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.
Television licenses were eventually revoked for old age pensioners, satisfying, long after the fact, the unusual ransom demands of Kempton Bunton. But in recent weeks the issue has once more been in question. Would a latter-day Bunton be prompted to make a similar, high-profile statement in protest to the licensing fee? The matter was finally resolved on 20 October of this year, when it was announced that free license fees for pensioners will be extended until at least 2017.
Kempton Bunton, floating on his cloud up in Heaven, must be looking down upon us with a satisfied smile.
We would like to thank Alan Hirsch for research assistance on this article.