Kempton Cannon Bunton (April 1904 – 1976) was a disabled British pensioner who allegedly stole Francisco Goya's painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London in 1961. The theft of the painting was the subject of the October 2015 BBC Radio 4 drama Kempton and the Duke.
Bunton was a disabled retired bus driver who earned £8 a week in 1961 (equivalent to £179 in 2019). In that year, Charles Bierer 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) (equivalent to £3,139,281 in 2019). He had plans to take it to the United States. The British Government decided to buy the painting, for the same sum, to prevent the painting leaving Britain. The move was reported to have enraged Bunton, however, 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 guards at the National Gallery, Bunton learned that the elaborate electronic security system, of infrared sensors and alarms, was deactivated in the early morning to allow for cleaning. Bunton claimed that, on the early morning of 21 August 1961, he had loosened a window in a toilet and entered the gallery. He had then prised off the framed painting from the display and escaped via the window.
The police initially assumed that an expert art thief was responsible. A letter was received by the Reuters news agency, however, requesting a donation of £140,000 to charity to pay for TV licences for poorer people and demanding an amnesty for the thief, for which the painting would be returned. The request 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 railway station, returned the painting voluntarily. Six weeks later, he also surrendered to the police, who initially discounted him as a suspect, considering the unlikelihood of a 61-year-old retiree, weighing 17 stone (110 kg), executing the theft.
During the subsequent trial, the jury convicted Bunton only of the theft of the frame, which had not been returned. Bunton's defence team, led by Jeremy Hutchinson QC , successfully claimed that Bunton never wanted to keep the painting, thus meaning he could not be convicted of stealing it. Bunton was sentenced to three months in prison. As a direct result of the case, Section 11 of the Theft Act 1968 was enacted making 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.
In 1996 documents released by the National Gallery implied that another person may have carried out the actual theft, and then passed the painting to Bunton. Bunton's son John was mentioned.
In 2012, following a Freedom of Information request by Richard Voyce, and with the assistance of Sarah Teather MP, 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 an unrelated minor offence. John Bunton said that his father had intended to use the painting as part of his campaign and that it would ultimately have been returned to the National Gallery. He said that both he and his brother, Kenneth, had been ordered by their father not to come forward despite the trial. Sir Norman Skelhorn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, told the police that John Bunton's admission of guilt was almost certainly not sufficient to prosecute him. Skelhorn also advised that it would be difficult to prosecute Bunton senior for perjury, as the prosecution would have to rely on the evidence of the son, who was clearly an unreliable witness. No further action was taken.
In the arts
The theft entered popular culture, as is referenced in the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No, with the painting displayed in Dr. No's lair. Episode 6, season 2 of The Goodies, "Culture for the Masses", references some aspects of the case. In 2015, a comedy drama, Kempton and the Duke, by David Spicer, was produced by BBC Radio 4.
In 2020 a musical set around the story of the theft, titled Kempton Bunton with book by Richard Voyce, music by Luke Bateman, and lyrics by Richard Hughes, was due to be showcased at BEAM 2020, the festival of new musical theatre, organised by Mercury Musical Developments.
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- Writer: David Spicer; Kempton Bunton: Kevin Whately; Producer: Liz Anstee (6 October 2015). "Kempton and the Duke". Radio 4 drama. BBC. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 21 November 2017. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
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- Grater, Tom (10 January 2020). "'The Duke': First Look At Jim Broadbent & Helen Mirren In Art Heist Story". Deadline. Retrieved 12 January 2020.