Bunton was a retired bus driver who earned only £8 in 1961. In that year, Charles Wrightsman, a rich American art collector who made his money in the oil business, purchased Goya's painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington for the sum of £140,000 ($390,000). He had plans to take it to the United States. The British Government decided to buy the painting for a sum of £140,000 to keep the painting on British soil. However, this move is reported to have enraged Bunton, who was embittered at having to pay the Television licence fee from his modest income.
Theft of the painting
According to his own account, from conversations with the guards, Bunton learned that the elaborate infra-red sensors/alarms of the electronic security system were turned off in the early morning to allow the cleaners to do their work. On the early morning of August 21, 1961, Bunton loosened a window in a toilet and entered the gallery. He prised off the framed painting from the display and escaped via the window.
The police initially assumed an expert art thief to be behind the heist. However, a letter was sent to the Reuters news agency, asking for a donation of £140,000 to charity to allow the poor to pay for TV licences and an amnesty for the thief, for which the painting would be returned. However, this was declined.
Return and prosecution
In 1965, four years after the theft, Bunton contacted a newspaper, and through a left luggage office at Birmingham New Street Station, returned the painting voluntarily. Six weeks later, he also surrendered to the police, who initially discounted him as a suspect, considering the unlikeliness of a 61 year old retiree, who weighed 17 stone, executing the heist.
During the trial the jury only convicted Bunton of the theft of the frame (which was not returned). Led by Jeremy Hutchinson QC (also notable for his involvement on the defence team at the Lady Chatterley trial), Bunton's defence had successfully claimed that Bunton never wanted to keep the painting, thus meaning he was not convicted of stealing the portrait itself. Bunton was sentenced to 3 months in prison. Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968, which makes it an offence to remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access, was enacted as a direct result of this case.
In 1996 documents released by the National Gallery implied that another individual may have carried out the actual theft, and then passed the painting to Bunton. Bunton's son John was mentioned in the documents.
In 2012 the National Archives released a confidential file from the Director of Public Prosecutions in which Bunton's son, John, confessed to the theft following his arrest in 1969 for a minor offence. John Bunton said that his father had intended to use the painting as part of his campaign and that it should ultimately be returned to the National Gallery. John said that both he and his brother, Kenneth, had been ordered by their father not to come forward despite his trial.
- Greatest heists in art history, BBC, 23 August 2004.
- Antonio Nicita and Matteo Rizzolli, "Screaming Too Mu(n)ch? The economics of art thefts", 18th Erfurt workshop on Law and Economics held on March 23 and 24, 2005.
- Travis, Alan (30 November 2012). "Revealed: 1961 Goya 'theft' from National Gallery was a family affair". The Guardian.
- Sean P. Steele, "Swindles, Stickups, and Robberies", pp 74-78. ISBN 1-85627-706-2.
- World's Greatest Art Heists, Forbes, September 1, 2006.
- Nairne, Sandy (6 August 2011). "From the National Gallery to Dr No's lair". The Guardian.
- Report: Ministerial Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade, British Department for Culture, Media and Sport, pp 15, December 2000.
- Art Theft Central: New Insights into an Old Art Theft