Italian retiree 'happy' to have lived with stolen Gauguin & Bonnard paintings

ROME (AFP) - The retired autoworker who unknowingly bought stolen paintings worth millions of euros by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard and hung them in his kitchen for 40 years said he was "proud" of his taste in art.

"As a simple factory worker, I am proud of having been able to appreciate and buy two masterpieces even though I did not know what they were," the 70-year-old Italian man was quoted by the La Stampa daily as saying on Thursday.

"What makes me most happy is having had the pleasure of living with them for so long," the pensioner was quoted as saying.

He said he wished to remain anonymous out of concern "because of the amount of money involved",

Italy's culture ministry showed off the paintings on Wednesday and revealed that they had been stolen from a London home in 1970 and were then found abandoned on an Italian train and sold off at auction as lost items.

The Fiat factory worker bought them in 1975, putting them in his home in Turin at the time and then bringing them with him to Sicily after his retirement.

Gauguin's "Fruit on a table or small dog" is estimated to be worth 10 to 30 million euros (S$17 to S$52 million) and "Woman with two chairs" by fellow Frenchman Pierre Bonnard is valued at some 600,000 euros.

The amateur art lover, who was told by the auctioner that they were Italian 19th century paintings, said he had always been "curious and passionate" about art.

"While other guys went to the bar or played cards after work, I went to the markets where art students were selling their drawings and their paintings," he said.

The man said he also went twice a year to auction of lost objects held by the Italian railways and bought the two paintings at one for 45,000 lire (S$40).

He said the prices was "lower than the starting bid" because the auctioneer was having trouble selling them and they had to be put up for auction a second time.

The man passed on his tastes to his sons - one an art graduate and the other an architecture student.

Leafing through a Bonnard catalogue, one of the sons recognised the Impressionist master's style.

He continued his research and found Gauguin's signature - a dog - at the bottom of the painting.

"To think that these paintings were about to go in the bin! My father told me that no one wanted them at the auction and they had to do a second sale," the student was quoted as saying by Live Sicilia, a web news site.

The young man said the family might sell off "one of the two" paintings, following the conclusion of an investigation by Rome prosecutors who are looking into whether they were bought in good faith.

But his father told La Stampa that he was concerned about the prospect of holding on to them.

"Keep them at my place? Impossible!"

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