Another Goya, another art law story

Posted on: October 15, 2015 by

As hinted at, there is another painting currently hanging at the Goya exhibition at the National Gallery with a story to tell. Unlike the Marquesa de Santa Cruz, this one relates to an episode involving theft, a botched ransom scheme and the adoption of new criminal legislation.

It is a portrait painted by Francisco Goya over a two-year period of the Duke of Wellington (1812-1814). This was at a time when the British were helping the Spanish push off the yoke of Napoleonic imperialism (Napoleon had recently igoya_dukeofwellingtonnstalled his brother Joseph on the throne in Spain) and Wellington was treated as a hero by much of the Spanish population.
The painting had ended up in the collection of the Duke of Leeds, who had opted to sell it in 1961. An American bought it, but due to the ensuing outrage that such a vital work of ‘national importance’ should be allowed to permanently leave the UK (think export controls), a last ditch attempt was made to keep the work in the country. The National Gallery, with help in part from a government grant, was in the end able to buy it for £140,000 (quite a penny in those days) and soon enough it went on display.

Within three weeks it was stolen.

The reason for the theft? As the numerous ransom notes made clear, the painting had been lifted to prove a point: that far too much attention was being afforded to ‘old Spanish firewood’ (the work’s backing was mahogany), rather than the plight of the needy in society, and more specifically the elderly. The demand? Give the equivalent amount paid for the painting (£140,000) over to a fund committed to helping pensioners. Things were expensive for such people, the notes explained, who were unfairly being charged for things like TV licences (no joke), entitlements they could barely afford.

Did the government give in to the demands? Heavens, no! A strong stance was taken: no negotiating. Finally, the man in possession of the painting got fed up. He realised that the state would never put the cause of ‘human happiness’ (his words) above its interest in retaining old and useless art. And so four years after the theft, he phoned in an anonymous tip informing the authorities where they could find the painting: in a left luggage locker at Birmingham New Street Station. Sure enough, it was there. Four months later, the man confessed to the crime.

Kempton Bunton was charged under the Larceny Act 1916 for stealing both the painting and the frame. He was found guilty for the frame, but not for the painting (for more on this, see National Gallery curator Humphrey Wine’s fascinating retelling in ‘The Missing Goya’ from the December 2001 issue of Art Antiquity and Law). Regarding the painting, there was a lack of proof that he’d had any ‘intention to permanently deprive’ the owner of it – a rather important requirement when it comes to theft – and so only the
charge relating to the frame stuck. As a result of this shortcoming in the law, Parliament wisely drafted a new provision (section 11) when enacting the Theft Act 1968, intended to catch situations exactly like the one involving Bunton. The new offence removed the ‘intention to permanently deprive’ requirement when an article has been unlawfully removed from a collection that is displayed to the public.

Goya Wellington sketchTwo other points to note. Firstly, there is a rarely seen preparatory sketch on display next to the painting, on loan from the British Museum (see image, left). It was drawn in 1812 using chalk and graphite and shows a much more battle-weary and sunken-eyed Arthur Wellesley (as he was known pre-dukedom) when compared to the commemorative painting. And secondly, as reported earlier, there is a link between the Duke of Wellington and art law: both during his campaign against the French in Spain and later at the Congresses of Paris and Vienna, the Iron Duke was a vociferous proponent of art restitution. All the artwork looted by Napoleon ought to be returned to its ‘ancient seat’ he wrote in a famous public letter from 1815.

So there is plenty to see and reflect upon for those visiting the exhibition at the National Gallery. It runs until 10 January 2016.