Spoilers ahead for The Duke.
It’s the biggest heist you’ve never heard of.
The year was 1961. The UK was brimming with pride that one of its national treasures – a priceless portrait of the Duke of Wellington by famed Spanish artist Francisco de Goya – was to remain safe in England after government funds were mobilized to ward one off interested American buyer.
The painting was proudly displayed at London’s National Gallery for all to see. But just 19 days after it was installed in the museum, it was stolen in the early hours of the morning.
John Bunton, a 20-year-old petty thief from Newcastle, was visiting the supposedly highly secured exhibition hall one day when he noticed that the window in the men’s room opened just enough for sneaking in and out.
He left a match on the window and tape on the lock to test if security would notice. When he returned the next day, nothing had been disturbed, so he hatched a plan.
He was given a gallery map and was told by a security guard that the security system was down around 4am when the museum’s cleaning team walked in.
John then made his way to a fenced-in lot outside the bathroom window and waited until the early hours of the morning when the alarms would be deactivated. He initially had no idea how to get up to the window, but he steals a ladder from a nearby construction yard.
After climbing into the museum, John snatched the painting from the easel it was sitting on undiscovered and slipped back out the window and down the ladder. He then had to scale a high barbed wire fence while carefully holding on to the painting to get to his getaway car.
As he frantically drove off, he went down a street in the wrong direction and was pulled over. A policeman scolded Bunton for his bad driving but took no notice of his valuable cargo.
“He just got him headed in the right direction,” said Christopher Bunton, John’s son and the film’s executive producer. “Everything just fell into place like God was helping.”
This was just the beginning of the epic heist that dragged on for years and was full of twists and turns. The events set the stage for the highly anticipated new film, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, which hits theaters in April.
It’s “unlike any heist movie you’ve ever seen,” Christopher told the Post.
Shortly after escaping, John found he had no idea what to do with the painting.
“The first thing he did was call his father Kempton [who] immediately insisted on taking the blame for it,” said Nicky Bentham, the film’s producer.
Kempton had a heart of gold and a favorite thing. He had lived most of his life in poverty and saw his father, a World War I disabled man, cut off from society. He therefore felt that seniors and people in need should get television for free.
“He believed television was the cure for loneliness,” Christopher said of his grandfather, who has been jailed three times for refusing to pay television license fees at his northern England home.
Kempton hid the valuable painting in the last place authorities would look for it: in a cabinet with a false door in his modest Newcastle home. Not even his wife knew it was there.
“The Government, Scotland Yard and the [National Gallery] were so shocked that this had happened right under their noses and they were really embarrassed,” Bentham said. “They were absolutely convinced that it had to be the mafia or a big criminal gang that could have done it because they were so brazen.”
Coincidentally, the portrait was stolen from the National Gallery exactly 50 years after the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre. Authorities thought the two thefts might be linked, the work of professional thieves.
“The last person they thought would be anyone was someone like my grandfather,” Christopher said.
Kempton attempted to use the painting to advance his cause. He anonymously used the Daily Mirror newspaper as a “middleman”, sent them a shipping label of the portrait as proof he owned the national treasure and tried to get British authorities to raise money for his free TV idea .
But it did not work. In 1965, after four years, Kempton relinquished the painting by leaving it in a secured luggage locker at Birmingham railway station. Five weeks later he turned himself in to Scotland Yard and took the fall for his son.
Kempton was defended by a famous attorney named Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode), who found a loophole. At this point, the law stated that it was not a crime to steal a painting if there was an intention to return it, which was Kempton’s plan all along. He was found not guilty of all charges except stealing the painting’s frame, which was thrown into the Thames on the night of the robbery.
“When [Hutchinson] “When interviewed years later, he said it was the most lighthearted and joyful trial he had ever been a part of,” Christopher said of the trial, which drew spectators into the courtroom.
“The only reason [Hutchinson] took it because he thought it would be a laugh and a distraction from his personal troubles he was going through at the time. He said the whole courtroom was regularly permeated by Kempton’s narrations,” Christopher continued.
Years later, John confessed to stealing the painting while being tied up for a car theft. But the British declined to charge them to avoid a revival of public spectacle.
As a silver lining, Kempton’s overarching goal was realized in 2000, decades after his death in 1976. That year legislation was passed to grant free television to seniors over the age of 75.
How the secret came to light
Although the heist in the James Bond classic Dr. No,” when the portrait appeared in the titular villain’s lavish lair, the details surrounding the Goya claw had been shrouded in mystery for years.
The robbery was a disgrace to the family and had never been discussed in his youth – apart from one time when John drunkenly told the story to his then 4-year-old son Christopher.
With his inside knowledge, the youngest Bunton combed through thousands of pages of documents, put everything together and made a film out of it.
“It was a really happy moment when he got in touch with me and I immediately saw that it could be a brilliant film,” said producer Bentham, who was quick to sign. The two men knew they wanted Jim Broadbent to play Kempton.
“He has this wonderful combination of warmth, genuine tenderness and also a very natural sense of humor and a wink. We just had to have him,” said Bentham.
Mirren loved the story and was quick to sign as well.
“It was really the script that she just loved,” Bentham said. “[And] The opportunity to work with Roger was always a draw. I think she also appreciated being sent something that didn’t necessarily suit her.”
Christopher, who has seen the Goya on a number of occasions and says it “feels like family,” believes his grandfather would love how things turned out.
“If he were to look down now, he would be very pleased with the way the film is developing.”
https://nypost.com/2022/04/22/the-duke-shows-surreal-truth-behind-infamous-art-heist/ The Duke reveals the surreal truth behind the infamous art heist