Retired truck driver Kempton Bunton was the Geordie Robin Hood of retirees, taking the establishment on a crusade for free television licenses.
He orchestrated 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 support him.
Kempton evaded detection for four years, before handing over the painting through the good offices of this newspaper. It was the Daily Mirror that solved it.
He had made his point and turned himself in to police – who had suspected him but could not believe a 61-year-old, 17-stone man could outwit state-of-the-art gallery security.
It was like something out of the Thomas Crown affair of Hollywood, except Kempton wasn’t Pierce Brosnan.
That’s why he’s portrayed by Jim Broadbent in The Duke, the new comedy-drama starring Dame Helen Mirren that has been delighting 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 prevent the sale of the Duke’s famous portrait to a wealthy American collector.
The artwork is quite small, at 25 inches by 20 inches. Legend has it that Spanish artist Francisco Goya only persuaded Wellington to pose by threatening him with a pistol.
The painting was purchased for the nation and displayed in the gallery’s main lobby on August 2.
Less than three weeks later, on August 21, it was stolen in a burglary that baffled police. It was the first theft at the National in 138 years, and gallery boss Sir Philip Hendy was told of it in his bath. He later said, “You feel like a fool, that’s the truth.”
The trail went cold for four years, before a mysterious reader wrote to the Daily Mirror in March 1965 from a post office in Darlington, Co Durham claiming to be the man at the Goya.
Wanting the portrait to be returned to its rightful owners – “the people, all of us” – Mirror editor Cecil King asked him to do the right thing.
In a confused response, the man demanded £30,000 for the painting to be returned, to be raised by public display.
He further demanded a confirmation message in the personal column of the signed newspaper “Whitfield”.
If these conditions are met, he told the newspaper, “you will receive a letter telling you to get the Goya back.”
On page three of the next day’s paper, the following appeared: TYA (or HFC) Your letter received and understood.
Mr Mystery wrote again, enclosing a receipt for luggage storage at Birmingham New Street station. Caramba!
Detectives recovered the stolen masterpiece, but still had no suspects – until Bunton turned himself in to London’s West End police station six weeks later.
Initially, detectives doubted his story, wondering if 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, along with other offences.
Before the magistrates in Bow Street, Kempton said: “I had no intention of keeping the painting or permanently depriving the nation of it. I never wanted to get anything for myself. My sole purpose in all of this was to start a charity to pay for television licenses for the elderly and poor who seem to be neglected in our affluent society.
He had served three short prison terms for refusing to buy a license in protest at the government spending so much money on a painting when pensioners could not afford to watch TV.
During his trial at the Old Bailey, Jeremy Hutchinson QC successfully argued that since Bunton never intended to keep the painting, he could not be found guilty of stealing it.
The jury agreed and acquitted him of that charge, as well as charges of demanding money with threats and causing a public nuisance, but found him guilty of stealing the frame, for which he received three months. The frame was never found and legend says it was thrown into the Thames.
The painting returned to the screen, and that was the end of the tribute to Thomas Crown. Except it wasn’t. In 1996, National Gallery documents suggested that someone else might have carried out the 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 at the National Archives.
John ‘Jackie’ Bunton, then a 20-year-old van driver and ex-petty criminal, living near Tottenham Court Road, had scaled the back wall of the gallery in the early hours of August 21, 1961 and used a builder’s ladder to enter through the men’s room window unlocked.
He found the Goya standing on an easel in a fenced off enclosure at the top of the main staircase. “I walked over, grabbed him and carried him back to the men’s room,” he said in a statement.
He left as he had come in, put the painting on the back seat of his getaway car (which he had to push the start), took it back to his accommodation and put it under his bed. Nothing could ever have been proven against Bunton Jr, but he panicked after he was arrested and fingerprinted in Leeds in 1969 for a minor offence.
Worried that he had left his fingerprints in the gallery, he told the officers he wanted to talk to them about something that had been bothering him for some time and confessed to Goya’s work.
When asked why he didn’t try to sell his precious loot 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 eventually be returned to the National Gallery. ”
But why didn’t he, or his brother Ken who knew about it, come clean at the time and save their father from 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, felt it was not enough to prosecute him alone.
Nor could his father be successfully prosecuted for perjury without relying on the testimony of his son, an unreliable witness. The case was therefore quietly dropped.
Besides the legal technicalities, it was perhaps considered that another very public dissemination of the art of the century might not be in the interest of the public – that is, the authorities. Visibly still embarrassed by the Goya saga 60 years after the event, the Gallery yesterday refused to answer questions from the Mirror, despite being the beneficiary of our efforts to reunite the painting with its rightful owners.
Kempton Bunton, named after his father’s victory at the races, died in obscurity in Newcastle in 1976, aged 76, but his name lives on in popular culture as Geordie Robin Hood for retirees.
Jackie, now 80 and living in North Tyneside, does not want to talk about the episode.
But speaking of New York, Jackie’s son Chris, 45, an entrepreneur, acknowledges the newspaper’s key role in solving the great mystery of the Goya heist. He says: “That’s why they returned the painting – because after four and a half years the Daily Mirror was acting as a go-between to get the painting back. They played a leading role. »
In the film, Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) walks with his son Jackie, holds a copy of the Mirror and talks about the paper’s role in the Goya saga.
Chris says the producers made the movie as authentic as possible.
“We gave the full picture,” he says. “The film says it all.
“Hopefully it becomes one of the great classic movies that plays every Christmas.”
He never knew his grandfather, the original conspirator, but staunchly defends his father 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 movie ends the whole 60-year episode.”
The couple speak on the phone regularly and while Jackie declined to speak to The Mirror, Chris caught 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 lived. He is 80 now, and not in very good health. Does it 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 heart.
He has been waiting for his release since the early days of the pandemic. The story has already appeared in a movie, however. The saga’s funniest parody came in the 1962 Bond film Dr No, when Sean Connery’s James Bond spots the portrait in the villain’s lair and says, “So that’s where he is!”
As he was driven away to serve his sentence at HMP Wandsworth, Kempton Bunton said: “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 for free television licenses for alumni enacted by the Labor Party.
But he could have gone back to war when they were recently abolished by the Conservatives. What a movie that would be.