True story of gallery raid behind comedy film The Duke - and how Mirror solved mystery

Retired lorry driver Kempton Bunton was the Geordie Robin Hood of pensioners, taking on the establishment in a crusade for free TV licences.

He masterminded the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery as part of his campaign.

But unlike the Duke in his defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Kempton won his moral victory without an army to back him.

Kempton evaded detection for four years, before handing the painting back through the good offices of this newspaper. It was The Daily Mirror wot solved it.

He had made his point, and gave himself up to the police – who had suspected him but could not believe that a 17-stone 61-year-old could outwit the gallery’s state-of-the-art security.

It was like something out of Hollywood’s The Thomas Crown Affair, except for the fact that Kempton was no Pierce Brosnan.

That is why he is played by Jim Broadbent in The Duke, the new comedy drama co-starring Dame Helen Mirren which has been been delighting cinema viewers since its long-awaited release last weekend. But the real story is more remarkable than anything Hollywood types could imagine.

The story begins in 1961, when the Government intervened to keep the famous portrait of the Duke from being sold to a wealthy American collector.

The artwork is quite small, at 25in by 20in. Legend has it that Spanish artist Francisco Goya only persuaded Wellington to pose by threatening him with a pistol.

The painting was bought for the nation and put on display in the Gallery’s main entrance lobby on August 2.

Less than three weeks later, on 21 August, it was stolen in a heist that baffled police. It was the first theft from the National in 138 years, and gallery boss Sir Philip Hendy was informed about it in his bath. He later said: “You feel a bloody fool, that’s the truth.”

The trail went cold for four years, before a mystery reader wrote to the Daily Mirror in March 1965, from a post office in Darlington, Co Durham claiming to be The Man with the Goya.

Anxious for the portrait to be restored to its rightful owners – “the people, all of us” – the Mirror’s then editor, Cecil King, appealed to him to do the right thing.

In a confused reply, the man demanded £30,000 for the return of the painting, to be raised by public exhibition.

He further demanded a confirmatory message in the newspaper’s personal column signed “Whitfield”.

If those conditions were met, he told the paper, “you will receive a letter informing you to pick up the Goya”.

On page three of the next day’s paper, the following appeared: T.Y.A (or H.F.C) Your letter received and understood.

Mr Mystery wrote again, enclosing a receipt for the left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street station. Caramba!

Detectives retrieved the stolen masterpiece, but still had no suspect – until Bunton surrendered himself six weeks later at London’s West End police station.

Initially detectives doubted his story, questioning whether a 61-year-old disabled man weighing 17 stone could have done the job. But he was charged with the theft of the £140,000 masterpiece, and its £100 frame, plus other offences.

Before Bow Street magistrates, Kempton said: “I had no intention of keeping the painting, or of depriving the nation permanently of it. I never wished to obtain anything for myself. My sole object in all this was to set up a charity to pay for TV licences for old and poor people who seem to be neglected in our affluent society.”

He had served three short prison sentences for refusing to buy a license in protest at the government spending so much money on a painting while pensioners couldn’t afford to watch TV.

At his Old Bailey trial, Jeremy Hutchinson QC successfully argued that since Bunton never intended to keep the painting, he couldn’t be convicted of stealing it.

The jury agreed, and acquitted him on that charge, and of charges of demanding money with menaces and of causing a public nuisance, but found him guilty of stealing the frame, for which he got three months. The frame was never found, and legend says it was thrown into the Thames.

The painting went back on display, and that was the end of the Thomas Crown tribute. Except it wasn’t. In 1996, National Gallery documents suggested that someone else could have carried out the actual theft, and suspicion fell on Bunton’s son, John.

But it was not until 2012 that he was finally identified as the culprit, in a confidential file from the Director of Public Prosecutions in the National Archives.

True story of gallery raid behind comedy film The Duke - and how Mirror solved mystery

John “Jackie” Bunton, then a 20-year-old van driver and former petty criminal, living in nearby Tottenham Court Road, had climbed over the gallery’s back wall in the early hours of August 21, 1961, and used a builder’s ladder to gain entry through an unlocked gents’ toilet window.

He found the Goya standing on an easel in a roped-off enclosure at the top of the main stairs. “I went up to it, took hold of it, and carried it back to the gents’ toilet,” he said in a statement.

He got out the way he came in, put the painting on the back seat of his getaway car (which he had to push-start), took it back to his lodgings and put it under his bed. Nothing could ever have been proved against Bunton Jr, but he panicked after being arrested and fingerprinted in Leeds in 1969 for a minor offence.

Anxious that he might have left his prints in the Gallery, he told officers he wanted to tell them about something that had been bothering him for some time, and confessed to the Goya job.

Asked why he didn’t try to sell his valuable haul, instead of giving it to his father, Bunton Jr said: “He intended to use it as a tool in his campaign, and that it should ultimately be returned to the National Gallery.”

But why did he, nor his brother Ken who was in on the knowledge, not come clean at the time and save their father an Old Bailey trial?

“He told us not to. Ordered us. It was his wish,” he said. Sir Norman Skelhorn, who was Director of Public Prosecutions at the time of Bunton’s confession, ruled that it alone was not enough to prosecute him.

Nor could his father be successfully prosecuted for perjury without relying on the evidence of his son, an unreliable witness. So the case was quietly dropped.

Apart from legal niceties, a view may have been taken that another very public airing of the art sting of the century might not be in the public – that is, the authorities’ – interest. Evidently still embarrassed by the Goya saga 60 years after the event, the Gallery yesterday refused to answer any questions from the Mirror, despite being the beneficiary of our efforts to reunite the painting with its rightful owners.

Kempton Bunton, so named after his father had a win at the races, died in obscurity in Newcastle in 1976, aged 76, but his name lives on in popular culture as the Geordie Robin Hood for pensioners.

Jackie, now 80 and living in North Tyneside, does not wish to talk about the episode.

Video LoadingVideo UnavailableClick to playTap to playThe video will auto-play soon8CancelPlay now

But speaking from New York, Jackie’s son Chris, 45, an entrepreneur, acknowledges the key role of this newspaper in solving the great Goya heist mystery. He says: “It’s why they returned the painting – because, after four and a half years, the Daily Mirror were acting as middle-man to get the picture back. They played a prominent role.”

In the film, Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is shown walking with son Jackie, holding a copy of the Mirror and talking about the paper’s role in the Goya saga.

Chris says the producers have made the movie as authentically as possible.

“We have given the full picture,” he says. “The film says it all.

“I hope it becomes one of the great classic films that is played every Christmas.”

He never knew his grandfather, the original plotter, but stoutly defends his dad Jackie, the man on a ladder with a mission.

“He was a flawed character, but ultimately a good person and I’m proud of him,” he says. “To me, he was a hero, and this film brings closure to the whole 60-year episode.”

The pair regularly talk on the phone and while Jackie declined to talk to The Mirror, Chris met up with him when he returned to the UK last week. “It was really good to see him,” he says.

“I took him to where he used to live. He’s 80 years old now, and not in the best of health. Does he make me proud? Yes.”

The film, The Duke, is billed as the story of how one man stole a national treasure and then stole the nation’s hearts.

It has been awaiting release since the early days of the pandemic. The story has, however, appeared on film before. The most amusing spoof of the saga appeared in the 1962 Bond film, Dr No, when Sean Connery’s James Bond spots the portrait in the villain’s lair, saying: “So that’s where it is!”

As he was driven away to serve his term at HMP Wandsworth, Kempton Bunton remarked: “I am intrigued by the verdict.”

Not half as intriguing, however, as the crime-that-never-was saga that humiliated the establishment.

Kempton sadly never lived to see his ambition of free old folks’ free TV licences enacted by Labour.

But he might have gone back on the warpath when they were recently abolished by the Tories. What a film that would be.

Read More

Read More