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The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!: The Incredible True Story of the Art Heist That Shocked a Nation

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In 1961, a thief broke into the National Gallery in London and committed the most sensational art heist in British history. He stole the museum’s much prized painting, The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Despite unprecedented international attention and an unflagging investigation, the case was not solved for four years, and even then, only because the culprit came f In 1961, a thief broke into the National Gallery in London and committed the most sensational art heist in British history. He stole the museum’s much prized painting, The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Despite unprecedented international attention and an unflagging investigation, the case was not solved for four years, and even then, only because the culprit came forward voluntarily. Kempton Bunton, an elderly gentleman, claimed he executed the theft armed with only a toy gun, a disguise purchased for five shillings, and a getaway car inadvertently provided by a drunkard. Shortly after turning himself in, Bunton also invoked language in an obscure law to maintain his innocence, despite the confession. He did not allege that the confession was false, but rather that stealing the painting did not constitute a crime because he intended to return it. On account of this improbable defense strategy, the story took another twist, resulting in a bizarre courtroom drama and extraordinary verdict. Over fifty years later, Alan Hirsch decided to explore the facts behind this historic case and uncovered shocking new evidence that both solved the crime and deepened the mystery.


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In 1961, a thief broke into the National Gallery in London and committed the most sensational art heist in British history. He stole the museum’s much prized painting, The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Despite unprecedented international attention and an unflagging investigation, the case was not solved for four years, and even then, only because the culprit came f In 1961, a thief broke into the National Gallery in London and committed the most sensational art heist in British history. He stole the museum’s much prized painting, The Duke of Wellington by Francisco Goya. Despite unprecedented international attention and an unflagging investigation, the case was not solved for four years, and even then, only because the culprit came forward voluntarily. Kempton Bunton, an elderly gentleman, claimed he executed the theft armed with only a toy gun, a disguise purchased for five shillings, and a getaway car inadvertently provided by a drunkard. Shortly after turning himself in, Bunton also invoked language in an obscure law to maintain his innocence, despite the confession. He did not allege that the confession was false, but rather that stealing the painting did not constitute a crime because he intended to return it. On account of this improbable defense strategy, the story took another twist, resulting in a bizarre courtroom drama and extraordinary verdict. Over fifty years later, Alan Hirsch decided to explore the facts behind this historic case and uncovered shocking new evidence that both solved the crime and deepened the mystery.

30 review for The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!: The Incredible True Story of the Art Heist That Shocked a Nation

  1. 5 out of 5

    Heidi The Reader

    "The only successful theft from London's National Gallery took place on August 21, 1961, when a brazen thief stole Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington." Introduction Alan Hirsch discusses an extraordinary art heist that took place in the 1960s, how it affected criminal law thereafter and even made an appearance in a James Bond movie. The thief sent authorities a series of ransom notes, demanding money for the return of the painting. This went on for years. "All the publicity led to a spike i "The only successful theft from London's National Gallery took place on August 21, 1961, when a brazen thief stole Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington." Introduction Alan Hirsch discusses an extraordinary art heist that took place in the 1960s, how it affected criminal law thereafter and even made an appearance in a James Bond movie. The thief sent authorities a series of ransom notes, demanding money for the return of the painting. This went on for years. "All the publicity led to a spike in visitors (from the usual August average of five thousand daily to more than seven thousand in the weeks following the theft), and reportedly even more people came to see the empty space where The Duke had hung than had come to see the painting itself." pg 19 This potentially fascinating story becomes bogged down during the chapters discussing the trial and minutiae of the law. But, Hirsch is thorough, I'll give him that. "Where necessary, lawyers argued in the alternative: "My client did not take the painting, and if he did take it he intended to return it." pg 125 I loved the information about the thief himself, which the world may not have seen before this book. Hirsch was given the man's unpublished memoirs to add details to his side of the story. "I understand you have information to give to police respecting the theft of the Goya portrait from the National Gallery in London." "You don't have to look any further, I am the man who took it," the man calmly replied." pg 107 I also enjoyed the information about the ransom notes sent after the heist. That part of this book read almost like a movie. Who does that! "In handwritten block letters, it began: "Query not that I have the Goya," and it sought to prove the point by identifying marks and labels on the back of the canvas." pg 52 Admittedly, I know very little about art history and had never heard of this event before reading The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped!. But I think this would be a great read for anyone interested in history, especially art history. It may appeal even more if you're interested in the development of criminal law in Great Britain.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Claudia

    The only painted stolen from London's National Gallery - Francisco Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and what a story it is. In 1961, the portrait was auctioned off with a top bid of ₤140,000. The people of England were in an uproar that it was to be sent to America either into the private collection of the high bidder or perhaps as a donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fortunately, the controversy created by the prospective artistic loss had the new owner willing to donate the pa The only painted stolen from London's National Gallery - Francisco Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington and what a story it is. In 1961, the portrait was auctioned off with a top bid of ₤140,000. The people of England were in an uproar that it was to be sent to America either into the private collection of the high bidder or perhaps as a donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fortunately, the controversy created by the prospective artistic loss had the new owner willing to donate the painting to the National Gallery at cost. Equally fortunately, a private organization was able to fund most of the purchase price leaving the government to provide the remaining 28%. Kempton Bunton - an unemployed truck driver - was outraged at what he saw as the frivolous waste of tax payer money. Especially after he recounts an encounter with an elderly pensioner who could not even afford the TV licensing fee - at that time, ₤4 or today's equivalent of ₤86 or $130. According to his memoirs, he planned to 'borrow' the painting and hold it for ransom. The ransom money would go into an organization/committee that would pay the cost for the licenses so that the elderly could watch a bit of television. The author switches between the facts as they are known and Bunton's memoirs. He kept the Goya for four years before returning it since neither the National Gallery nor the police are allowed to negotiate ransom of any type. It was eventually due to the interference of the Daily Mirror newspaper that got Bunton fed up with the entire matter and returned the painting via a 'left luggage office.' It was mere weeks later that he surrendered himself to the police, and eventually went to trial. And that's where oddball laws left on the books come back to bite the justice system - especially in the hands of a determined barrister. On the books at that time - the loophole has since then been closed - was the Larceny Act of 1916 which says that larceny was a person who takes any item capable of being stolen and permanently deprive the owner. Mr. Bunton repeatedly stated that he always intended to return the Goya and did so before turning himself in. In actuality, Mr. Bunton was acquitted of the theft of the portrait but he was found guilty of stealing the frame since it was never found and one story had it chopped up and tossed in the Thames River. He served three months in prison, returned home and lived on his pension always known as the man who stole the Goya. But was he? In 2012 - 36 years after Kempton Bunton's death, confidential files were released which stated that Bunton's son, John, confessed to the actual theft back in 1969. At that time, the police, the National Gallery and the prosecutor's office decided not to charge him, letting the case continue to fade into history. The author does a wonderful job keeping the story flowing. He is the current owner of Bunton's written memoirs. He has talked with John Bunton who keeps out of the proverbial limelight. In doing a bit of research, it costs ₤150.50 to get a year's license to watch and/or record live broadcast television transmissions via television, cable, internet, satellite. Yes, even on your cellphone. Oh, and take a close look at the film Dr. No. for on the walls of his hideout is the portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Yes, a facsimile but the portrait was stolen in August of 1961 and the film released in 1962. Maybe the first James Bond villain arranged for its theft. . . . 2019-081

  3. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Only weeks after the British nation raised the money to stop the export of Goya's portrait of the Iron Duke to America, a thief got into the gallery via an unlocked bathroom window and made off with him! Over the next four years, the authorities got messages, sometimes via newspapers, that the painting was being held for an odd ransom--the suspension of the TV tax for pensioners. Forbidden by law to negotiate with kidnappers or extortionists, the police just bided their time, and the painting wa Only weeks after the British nation raised the money to stop the export of Goya's portrait of the Iron Duke to America, a thief got into the gallery via an unlocked bathroom window and made off with him! Over the next four years, the authorities got messages, sometimes via newspapers, that the painting was being held for an odd ransom--the suspension of the TV tax for pensioners. Forbidden by law to negotiate with kidnappers or extortionists, the police just bided their time, and the painting was eventually returned. The ostensible thief they caught was a disgruntled truck driver, who subsequently made a circus out of his trial as his legal team argued a loophole in the law that he had not *stolen* the painting, but borrowed it, and therefore could not be found guilty of the crime charged. Hirsch concludes his book with the "bombshell" that it was probably a miscreant son who actually stole the painting, but the real story is with curmudgeon Kempton Bunton, who led the stodgiest authorities in Britain into courtroom mayhem and forced them to, quietly and months later, get rid of the TV tax for the elderly.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jo

    This would have been a great New Yorker length article, but the author did not have enough story to sustain a book of this length. He was under the erroneous impression that readers would want a blow by blow description of the trial, and analysis of each side's legal strategy. This would have been a great New Yorker length article, but the author did not have enough story to sustain a book of this length. He was under the erroneous impression that readers would want a blow by blow description of the trial, and analysis of each side's legal strategy.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Douglas Welch

    How, in 1961, did an unimposing, middle-aged man from Newcastle commit a crime that no one has accomplished before or since — stealing a painting from London’s National Gallery? How then did this man, with the somewhat Dickensian name of Kempton Bunton, hold the painting — Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington — for ransom for 4 years, only to return it — unpaid — and turn himself in to the authorities? How could this story — which dominated the headlines for years — be lost to history until How, in 1961, did an unimposing, middle-aged man from Newcastle commit a crime that no one has accomplished before or since — stealing a painting from London’s National Gallery? How then did this man, with the somewhat Dickensian name of Kempton Bunton, hold the painting — Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington — for ransom for 4 years, only to return it — unpaid — and turn himself in to the authorities? How could this story — which dominated the headlines for years — be lost to history until new information — and an unpublished memoir by the thief himself — arose in 2011? How big was this crime at the time? Even the early James Bond film, Dr. No, paid homage to the story’s power. While only 1 person supposedly knew the location of the painting for 4 years, the writer’s and set designers of the film placed the missing painting on display in Dr. No’s villainous hideout — drawing a nice double-take from Bond as he walks by. The story was so well known at the time that it was expected that viewers would easily get the reference. With all these questions, and my general love of mystery stories, I avidly dove into The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped and completed the book in just a week or so. Kempton Bunton seems like something out of fiction — a 1960’s version of Don Quixote. Ostensibly he took the painting in order to further his campaign for television licenses for pensioners. After the British Government paid 140,000 pounds to retain the painting after an American collector had purchased it, he saw it as a target apt to catch the eyes and ears of public, as well as something valuable enough to ransom with promises of free TV licenses for all the old people in Britain. Really? Was this really the reason for the theft and the 4 years of running ransom demands? As with many fictional stories, you always need to think deeply about how reliable your narrator might be. Many things don’t add up in this story, but it would take decades for the truth to be fully known. Alan Hirsch has done an admirable job with this tale, using tons of contemporary news accounts, reports and other documentation from those directly involved in the search for the painting, including museum staff, Metropolitan Police reports and an unpublished memoir, written in the 1970’s by Kempton Bunton, yet only unearthed in 2011, nearly 50 years since the crime occurred. He takes us through Kempton’s version of the tale and tries to square it to what was known by police and other authorities at the time. Step-by-step we follow the painting to its hiding place, read the ransom letters sent over those 4 years and witness the sad, ludicrous and ultimately futile end of the caper with the return of the painting and Bunton’s self-submission and confession to authorities. Hirsch details the court case against Bunton as it plods through the courts, including accounts from the defense lawyers and their troubling thoughts of how they were going to defend a man who willingly admitted to taking the painting and writing the ransom notes. A quirk in British Common Law gave them a loophole to play with, but would it be enough? Unfortunately, the book loses a bit of its forward momentum during these courtroom chapters. With countless quotes from court transcripts and the pondering over the legal loophole, the reader might feel a bit like the jurors themselves — overwhelmed, tired and a bit bored with all the legal wrangling. Still, continue on brave reader and you will be rewarded with a twist, a turn and perhaps, the true story of The Duke of Wellington, Kidnapped finally revealed. There is more to this story than meets the eye and threads, once pulled, might never be stitched back together again. Just what did happen on that night in 1961? How did it happen and who knows the whole truth of the story? If you like a bit of mystery, a bit of true crime and, sometimes, a bit of farce that seems to odd to be true, you’ll enjoy this romp through one of the biggest UK crimes of the 1960’s. My Review On My Word with Douglas E. Welch

  6. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    This is a well-researched book about an English thief who stole a famous painting in order to get enough money to pay for BBC licensing fees for retirees who couldn’t afford it. However, all is not what it seems, and the reader has to deal with an unreliable narrator in this book. I was not familiar with this case so I learned a lot about it. However, the author repeated a lot of details that could have been trimmed back to shorten the length of the book and would have made the narrative a littl This is a well-researched book about an English thief who stole a famous painting in order to get enough money to pay for BBC licensing fees for retirees who couldn’t afford it. However, all is not what it seems, and the reader has to deal with an unreliable narrator in this book. I was not familiar with this case so I learned a lot about it. However, the author repeated a lot of details that could have been trimmed back to shorten the length of the book and would have made the narrative a little easier to navigate. This was one of my book club’s suggestions and it elicited a spirited discussion about the law, ethics and family relationships.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Butcher

    My actual rating is 1.5 stars. The biggest mystery to me was why this book does not include a complete image of the painting or photos of any of the people involved in the theft and eventual return of the painting. I almost quit reading at about the halfway point in the book. I wish that I had read other reviews before starting to read this book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Nik W

    i quit after hundred pages. there's nothing deep in it and the story has no bones. i quit after hundred pages. there's nothing deep in it and the story has no bones.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Vintagebooklvr

    It is an interesting story but parts dragged.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emg

    Disappointing. Repetitive. Although I did like the author's sense of humor. Disappointing. Repetitive. Although I did like the author's sense of humor.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jordy Lievers-Eaton

    3.5

  12. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    On July 19, 1965, the unlikely Kempton Bunton – 61 years old, weighing nearly 250 pounds – turned himself in for single-handedly stealing Goya’s Duke of Wellington. The heist had created an international sensation four years earlier. While many suspected the theft was done by a cabal of criminal geniuses (i.e., Dr. Moriarty meets Dr. No), here stood a quirky, life-long loser who wanted free TV for pensioners. And he was their man. Hirsch’s book provides the unusual story behind the theft and ran On July 19, 1965, the unlikely Kempton Bunton – 61 years old, weighing nearly 250 pounds – turned himself in for single-handedly stealing Goya’s Duke of Wellington. The heist had created an international sensation four years earlier. While many suspected the theft was done by a cabal of criminal geniuses (i.e., Dr. Moriarty meets Dr. No), here stood a quirky, life-long loser who wanted free TV for pensioners. And he was their man. Hirsch’s book provides the unusual story behind the theft and ransom of the painting, and its eccentric protagonist, Kempton Bunton. The book jumps around from the different perspectives, and it’s sometimes hard to figure out the actual timeline. (I suspect this is done to maintain some of the surprises at the end.) And the story itself is probably better suited as a long article. Hirsch goes into much detail about court proceedings, gallery security and other topics. But these are quibbles. The iconoclastic Kempton Bunton (I love that name) is the real topic of the book. If you are looking for some light reading about an interesting person, I recommend this book.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gail

    I actually stopped reading this book when there were only twelve more pages to go. I really don't know why I didn't stop sooner than that. The most interesting part of this book is before the courtroom scene. In the beginning, you find out that this is the only book that has ever been written about this case. That, alone, should have warned me. Alan Hirsch is not a good writer; in fact, he's quite repetitious. He states the same facts over and over again ad nauseum. It becomes quite deadly to re I actually stopped reading this book when there were only twelve more pages to go. I really don't know why I didn't stop sooner than that. The most interesting part of this book is before the courtroom scene. In the beginning, you find out that this is the only book that has ever been written about this case. That, alone, should have warned me. Alan Hirsch is not a good writer; in fact, he's quite repetitious. He states the same facts over and over again ad nauseum. It becomes quite deadly to read. I could see this, perhaps, being a magazine article as there really wasn't a whole lot of information. I got to the point where I just didn't care. The book totally wasted my time.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Raymond

    I reeeeaaaaally wanted to like this one. I'm seeing others had the same issues I did - that it may have been a great long magazine article or short book, but there just isn't enough meat on the bones of this story to fill a 250+ page book. The author bounces back and forth between the unpublished memoirs of the "master thief" and various public records. As a result, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Normally I have no issues with such a device, but the narrative just doesn't gel here. I reeeeaaaaally wanted to like this one. I'm seeing others had the same issues I did - that it may have been a great long magazine article or short book, but there just isn't enough meat on the bones of this story to fill a 250+ page book. The author bounces back and forth between the unpublished memoirs of the "master thief" and various public records. As a result, the story unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Normally I have no issues with such a device, but the narrative just doesn't gel here.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Paula

    I've read many true art crime stories but I cannot recommend this one. Less than half way through the narrative the author became bogged down in the court room and related events. I was bored to tears. Thus would have made a very good magazine article, but not a book. Disappointing. I've read many true art crime stories but I cannot recommend this one. Less than half way through the narrative the author became bogged down in the court room and related events. I was bored to tears. Thus would have made a very good magazine article, but not a book. Disappointing.

  16. 5 out of 5

    John

    I learned way way way too much about art theft. Just couldn't wait for it to end. It was just a random choice at the library but I finished it and was glad when it was over. I learned way way way too much about art theft. Just couldn't wait for it to end. It was just a random choice at the library but I finished it and was glad when it was over.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Melanie H

    So very much potential, such great source material, such disappointing execution. Spoiler alert: there once was a man whose personal cause was free BBC licensing for old age pensioners.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jpau

  19. 5 out of 5

    James Dunning

  20. 5 out of 5

    prima

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lizzie

  22. 5 out of 5

    Yelena Sorokina

  23. 4 out of 5

    Sandra

  24. 4 out of 5

    Liz

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mj Zander

  26. 5 out of 5

    Slate

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

  28. 5 out of 5

    Gina Volpe

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Girand

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mel C.

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