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Fiat worker ‘happily’ lived with stolen artwork

The retired autoworker who unknowingly bought stolen paintings worth millions of euros by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard and hung them in his kitchen for 40 years said he was "proud" of his taste in art.

Fiat worker 'happily' lived with stolen artwork
Carabinieri stand next to the painting by French artists Paul Gauguin "Fruits sur une table ou nature morte au petit chien". Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

"As a simple factory worker, I am proud of having been able to appreciate and buy two masterpieces even though I did not know what they were," the 70-year-old Italian man was quoted by the La Stampa daily as saying on Thursday.

"What makes me most happy is having had the pleasure of living with them for so long," the pensioner, who said he wished to remain anonymous out of concern "because of the amount of money involved", was quoted as saying.

Italy's culture ministry showed off the paintings on Wednesday and revealed that they had been stolen from a London home in 1970 and were then found abandoned on an Italian train and sold off at auction as lost items.

The Fiat factory worker bought them in 1975, putting them in his home in Turin at the time and then bringing them with him to Sicily after his retirement.

Gauguin's "Fruit on a table or small dog" is estimated to be worth €10 to 30 million ($13 to $41 million) and "Woman with two chairs" by fellow Frenchman Pierre Bonnard is valued at some 600,000 euros.

The amateur art lover, who was told by the auctioner that they were Italian 19th century paintings, said he had always been "curious and passionate" about art.

"While other guys went to the bar or played cards after work, I went to the markets where art students were selling their drawings and their paintings," he said.

The man said he also went twice a year to auction of lost objects held by the Italian railways and bought the two paintings at one for 45,000 lire, or €23.

He said the prices was "lower than the starting bid" because the auctioneer was having trouble selling them and they had to be put up for auction a second time.

The man passed on his tastes to his sons – one an art graduate and the other an architecture student.

Leafing through a Bonnard catalogue, one of the sons recognized the Impressionist master's style.

He continued his research and found Gauguin's signature – a dog – at the bottom of the painting.

"To think that these paintings were about to go in the bin! My father told me that no-one wanted them at the auction and they had to do a second sale," the student was quoted as saying by Live Sicilia, a web news site.

The young man said the family might sell off "one of the two" paintings, following the conclusion of an investigation by Rome prosecutors who are looking into whether they were bought in good faith.

But his father told La Stampa that he was concerned about the prospect of holding on to them.

"Keep them at my place? Impossible!"

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ART

Masterpieces stolen in Verona heist found in Ukraine

Paintings including masterpieces by Rubens and Tintoretto that were stolen from a Verona museum last year have been found in Ukraine, Italy's culture minister said on Wednesday.

Masterpieces stolen in Verona heist found in Ukraine
The works were taken from the Castelvecchio museum in Verona, pictured. Photo: Matthew Roberts/Flick

“It is a great day,” the minister, Dario Franceschini, said in a statement. “The artworks will soon be back in the Castelvecchio (museum) in Verona.”

The recovery of the 17 paintings, which had a combined estimated value of €15 million euros ($16 million) follows the arrest in March of 12 suspected members or accomplices of a Moldovan gang which the Italian authorities believe carried out the heist in November 2015.
   
Franceschini thanked the Ukrainian authorities for their help in tracing the art works which Italian media reported had been stolen to order for a buyer based in Chechnya.
   
Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko said the recovery of the paintings was a sign to the world that “Ukraine is starting to effectively combat smuggling, including smuggling of artworks, but also to combat corruption.”
   
Verona's mayor also voiced his delight.
   
“We are breathing an enormous sigh of relief and we are very happy because it is an important piece of Verona that is to be returned to the citizens of the city and the whole world,” Flavio Tosi said.
   
At the time of the robbery, police said it appeared the works had been stolen 'to order' for a private collector, given the difficulty anyone would have in selling on works by such well-known artists.
   
Three masked men entered the 14th century building at the evening change of guard, slipping in after the museum had been emptied but before its state-of-the-art security system had been put into overnight mode.
 
 A security guard and another member of staff were tied up before the pictures were taken.
   
The guard was one of the suspects arrested, along with his brother and the brother's Moldovan girlfriend, who is suspected of having alerted the robbers to the potential to pull off the audacious heist.
   
The thieves' haul included “Portrait of a Lady” by Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens and “Male Portrait” by Venetian artist Tintoretto, as well as works by Pisanello, Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni Francesco Caroto and Hans de Jode.
   
Another acclaimed work, “The Conversion of Saul”, by Italian Renaissance painter Guilio Licinio, was damaged during the robbery but has since been successfully restored.

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