Two paintings stolen in 1970 recovered in Italy

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ROME -- In 1975, a factory worker at the Italian carmaker Fiat bought two colorful paintings for about $70 at an auction in Turin of objects left unclaimed by train passengers.

For years, they hung on his kitchen wall. One was a still life with fruit and a small dog, the other showed a woman in white seated in a verdant garden.

Then, last summer, the man's son, an architecture student, was looking through a book of paintings by Paul Gauguin and saw a familiar image: a still life with a dog. The family called in experts, who contacted Italian police.

On Wednesday, police said the paintings were, in fact, a still life by Gauguin from 1889 and "Woman With Two Chairs" by Pierre Bonnard, both of which had been reported stolen from a London home in 1970.

"I'd say it's quite satisfying," Gen. Mariano Mossa, chief of the cultural heritage division of Italy's paramilitary Carabinieri police, said in a phone interview after presenting the findings at the Culture Ministry in Rome, after a monthslong investigation.

Gen. Mossa said the Gauguin could be worth as much as 35 million euros (around $48 million), and the Bonnard at least 500,000 euros (around $690,000). Auction house experts in New York City put the Gauguin's worth at approximately $15 million, and the Bonnard around $2 million.

The paintings' recovery followed several other similar high-profile cases in Europe.

In November, a trove of more than 1,200 artworks was reported to have been found in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of a Nazi-era art dealer. And in the summer, a Romanian woman said she may have burned works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin and Lucian Freud that had been stolen the year before from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, in an effort to protect her son, who had been accused of the theft.

Gen. Mossa said police did not know who had taken the Gauguin and Bonnard paintings from London, but he speculated that they had arrived in Italy on a Paris-Turin train, and that whoever was transporting them might have been stopped at customs, abandoning them to the fate of the Italian railroad's lost property office.

Officials there obviously did not recognize the works, so they sold them, Gen. Mossa said. The retired Fiat worker, whose name he declined to disclose, citing continuing investigations, "didn't understand the value, and he kept them in Turin, and then in Sicily after he retired."

The Carabinieri were able to identify the Gauguin after seeing it in a catalog of Gauguin paintings from 1961, but it didn't appear in a 2001 edition of his works. "That meant it had either been stolen or misplaced," Gen. Mossa said.

Police found a 1970 United Press International article in The New York Times that reported the theft of the paintings from a home in London's Regent's Park.

"The police said that three men posing as burglar-alarm engineers called at 8 Chester Terrace, Regent's Park," the report said. "Two of them started to work on the home's burglar alarm in the presence of the housekeeper. They asked her to make them a cup of tea, and when she returned, the paintings had been taken from their frames, and the men were gone."

Gen. Mossa identified the original owners as Mathilda Marks, a philanthropist and a daughter of Michael Marks, a founder of the Marks & Spencer department store chain, and Terence Kennedy, an American whom she had married late in life. But he said neither was alive, and that police had not yet identified an heir.

Scotland Yard spokesman Rob Singh said Italian authorities earlier this year had asked the London police agency's arts and antiques unit for help in tracing the paintings' owners. "The unit was able to establish that the paintings were sold by Sotheby's in the United States in 1962, and advised the Italian authorities accordingly," he said, adding, "It has not been possible to trace the records of the 1970 theft."

For now, the Carabinieri are holding the paintings while determining how to proceed. If no heirs to the Marks-Kennedy family are found, the paintings may be returned to the retired factory worker in Sicily.

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