When A Famous Painting Was Stolen From The National Gallery... As A Protest Against TV Licence Fees

When A Famous Painting Was Stolen From The National Gallery... As A Protest Against TV Licence Fees
The scene of the crime. Image: Shutterstock

What connects the beginning of the James Bond saga, the Duke of Wellington, and a protest about the funding of TV licences for pensioners?

In a scene from the 1962 Bond film Dr No, 007 gets a glimpse of the villain’s lair. It's decorated with a number of ill-gotten goods — one of which is a reproduction of a Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington. The painting’s appearance was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a notorious robbery that had taken place the year before, when the real picture was snatched from the National Gallery in London. At the time of Dr No’s release, the fate of the painting was still unknown. It wasn’t until years later that the story behind the heist would be revealed.

"The painting was hung in the gallery on 3 August. By 21 August it had gone"

The picture at the centre of the scandal was painted by Goya from 1812-14. In private hands for many years, it was put up for auction in 1961, when it was bought for £140,000 by an American collector who planned to take the painting to the US; however, following protests, the collector offered to sell it to the National Gallery if the funds could be found to match the price he paid at auction. So, the government and the Wolfson Foundation clubbed together to match the buyer’s payment and kept the portrait in the UK instead.

Sean Connery espies the nicked Goya in Dr No

But while the painting had been kept in the country, what no-one had anticipated was that there might be a problem keeping the painting in the gallery itself. 3 August, 1961: the painting went on public display. 21 August: the painting had gone. A police investigation later found that a bathroom window at the gallery had been left open and the thief had used this to enter and exit the building with the purloined Goya.

It wasn’t the first time a painting had been stolen from a London gallery: the city has seen numerous heists over the years. There was the 1876 robbery of a Gainsborough by a man who would inspire the creation of Dr Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes. The four thefts of the same Rembrandt from Dulwich Picture Gallery. The taking of a Berthe Morisot from the Tate by two students, who arranged for a press photographer to capture the event.

In fact, 21 August 1961 was a fitting date for the Goya to go missing; it marked the 50th anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. But nothing had been stolen from London’s National Gallery in its entire history — until now.

A ransom notes arrive

The Goya painting that became the centre of a TV licence-themed heist. Image: National Gallery

10 days later, the first of what would become a series of ransom notes was sent to the media. The sender demanded £140,000, the same amount that was originally granted to keep the painting. But here came the strange bit. The thief wanted the money to be used to fund TV licences for the elderly. In July 1962, a new ransom note was sent, along with proof that the sender was genuinely in possession of the Goya: a label that had been taken from the back of the painting. The ransom note saga took another bizarre twist on New Year’s Eve, 1963, when a further message was delivered. This time the sender made a series of demands under which they promised to return the painting. Demands included the presence of photographers while the painting was handed over, an amnesty from prosecution for the thief, and the right to wear a hood in order to stay anonymous when making the return.

None of the demands were ever agreed to. However, in the summer of 1965, the thief decided to return the painting anyway, and on 21 May 1965, the Goya was deposited in a locker at Birmingham New Street train station, with an anonymous phone call then made to the police to tell them where it could be found. A couple of months later, the thief decided to turn himself in as well. The next surprise was the identity of the person responsible: the culprit turned out not to be an experienced art thief, but a former bus driver in his sixties named Kempton Bunton. Bunton claimed he had not wanted to keep the painting permanently, but only wanted to take it temporarily to make a point. The source of his anger was the amount of money originally put forward by the government to secure that the Goya stayed in the UK. The funding of TV licences for pensioners was as contentious a subject in 1961, as it is in 2019. Bunton confessed to the theft on 19 July and claimed to have been the only person involved.

Another twist to the tale

Let's hope that with the recent news that elderly people will have to pay for their TV licence, that more famous paintings don't go missing. Image: Shutterstock

Due to his confession, most thought that Bunton’s conviction would be a foregone conclusion when the case came to trial. However, in yet another surprising twist to this tale, that turned out not to be the case — or not entirely. On 16 November 1965, Bunton was convicted of stealing the frame, but cleared of the theft of the painting itself. He was acquitted of the latter charge on the grounds that he had never intended to keep the painting and had only temporarily removed it as a protest. (Following this, the law was changed to ensure this could not be used as a loophole in future theft cases.) However, as the frame had not been returned with the painting, the charge of stealing that did stick, and he was sentenced to three months in prison.

Despite Bunton’s confession, doubts remained for many years about whether or not the whole story had been revealed; some wondered how a man of his age and build could have executed the physical challenges of the heist without detection. In 2012, formerly confidential files were made public, in which it was stated that his son John had confessed to being involved in the theft in 1969, while being questioned about involvement in another crime. John claimed to have been the one who physically stole the painting, which he then gave to his father. He also alleged that when Kempton decided to confess, he had told John not to come forward about his own role, as Kempton felt he should take sole responsibility for the scheme.

Ultimately, whether father or son, or both, were responsible, the revelations behind the theft of the Goya highlighted some important differences between perception and reality. It showed that, far from being the kind of international masterminds referenced in the world of James Bond, people involved in art crime could come in all shapes and sizes.

Last Updated 01 July 2019