Gauguin painting found: $45m masterpiece hanging on the kitchen wall

Rome: More than 40 years after being stolen by conmen from an heiress to the Marks and Spencer empire, then abandoned on a train in Italy and finally sold at auction for a pittance, a long-lost masterpiece by Gauguin has finally been rediscovered.

The recovery of the painting, Fruits on a table, or Still life with a small dog, was described as ''extraordinary'' by Italy's culture minister when it was announced at a press conference in Rome on Wednesday.

It was the culmination of a convoluted saga which began in June 1970 when the artwork was taken from an apartment at Chester Terrace, near Regent's Park in London. The home was owned by Mathilda Marks, a renowned philanthropist and the daughter of Michael Marks, the founder of Marks and Spencer, and her American husband Terence Kennedy. Mrs Marks had died a few years before the theft.

Three men entered the flat, one of them posing as a policeman, and the others as burglar alarm technicians. Telling the housekeeper that they needed to check the property's alarm system, they asked her to make them cups of tea. When she returned, they had disappeared, and so had the Gauguin, which had been cut out of its frame.

The still life, painted in 1889 and estimated now to be worth up to €30 million ($45 million), was recovered alongside a work by another French artist, Pierre Bonnard, titled Woman with two armchairs, thought to be worth around €600,000. The unidentified thieves smuggled the paintings by train through France and into Italy but then dumped them for unknown reasons on a train heading towards Turin. They were found by railway officials and languished for years in a dusty lost and found office before being put up for auction by Italy's national railway operator.

There they were snapped up for 45,000 lire – just €23 in today's money – by a Fiat factory worker who, apparently not knowing the provenance of the works, hung them on the wall of his kitchen.


But recently he grew suspicious about the origins of the paintings after his son showed him works by Gauguin in an art book.  He consulted art experts, who contacted a unit of the carabinieri that investigates the theft of precious art and archaeological artefacts. ''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,'' said Dario Franceschini, the culture minister.

Police used newspaper reports about the theft in The New York Times to trace the paintings back to their former owners in London.

Mathilda Marks and her husband had no children and Italian police are liaising with London's Metropolitan Police to find possible heirs to their estate, who might claim the recovered paintings, the head of the carabinieri's art theft unit, General Mariano Mossa, said. The art theft unit controls the most comprehensive data bank on stolen art in the world, with information on some 5.7 million works.

Telegraph, London