Stolen Gauguin found in Italian pensioner's kitchen

ROME (AFP) - Italy on Wednesday said it had recovered a painting worth millions of euros by Paul Gauguin, stolen in London in 1970, bought by an Italian factory worker for a pittance and hung in his kitchen for almost 40 years.

The artist's "Fruit on a table or small dog" was stolen from a house in the British capital along with "Woman with two chairs" by fellow Frenchman Pierre Bonnard, and they were recovered together in Italy from the pensioner, who used to work for Italian auto giant Fiat.

The Gauguin painting is worth between 10 and 30 million euros ($17 and $52 million) while the Bonnard is valued at some 600,000 euros, Italy's heritage police said at a press conference on Wednesday.

The paintings turned up in a lost property department at a train station and were sold at auction in 1975 to a worker for Italian auto giant Fiat, who bought them for 45,000 Italian lire, or 23 euros.

"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.

The paintings by the French artists were found last month after a lengthy investigation, which began when police received a tip-off from the retired worker's son that they may have been stolen.

It was the architecture student in Siracusa in Sicily who called in experts to evaluate his father's collection and flagged up the incredible find to the police, Italian media reports said.

Investigators trawled through back catalogues of exhibitions, from which the 1889 Gauguin mysteriously disappeared after it was stolen.

They then used newspaper reports about the 1970s theft in The New York Times and a Singaporean paper to trace the paintings back to the London-based family and uncover the details of the heist.

On the day of the robbery, three men posing as burglar-alarm engineers called at the Regent's Park property and began working on the alarm in the presence of the housekeeper, said the New York Times article, dated June 8, 1970.

"They asked her to make a cup of tea, and when she returned the paintings had been taken from their frames and the men were gone," it said.

Who now owns the artworks, which were taken to Sicily by the worker when he retired, is unclear.

The house - and paintings - belonged to American author Terence Kennedy and his wife Mathilda Marks, daughter of businessman Michael Marks - a co-founder of British retail chain Marks & Spencer.

But both have since died and investigators have yet to uncover an heir, said Mariano Mossa, who heads up the heritage police.

The Gauguin had been cut out of its frame and now measures 46.5 centimetres by 53 centimetres, down from its original size of 49 centimetres by 54 centimetres.

Italy opened a special department to investigate art thefts in 1969, the first in the world, which is situated in a Baroque palace in the centre of Rome's bustling tourist centre.

The heritage police manages the largest data bank on stolen art in the world, with 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.

Mossa said in January that "the turnover generated by the illegal sale of works of art comes fourth on a world level behind the sale of weapons, drugs and financial products."

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