The Strangest Theft

Around two-thirds of the way through the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No, the eponymous villain gives 007 a tour of his hideout. During the tour, Bond does an obvious double-take at one of Dr. No’s paintings:

Dr. No
(click to enlarge)

For those of us born well after the film’s release, the double-take is confusing. Why is Bond interested in this painting? Why does he have such a startled reaction to it?

The scene was an inside joke for people of the era, especially British viewers. And that’s because it references one of the strangest art heists in history.

The man in the painting is Arthur Wellesley. Born on April 29, 1769 to an aristocratic English family in Ireland, Wellesley attended several top-notch schools. But the death of his father and the subsequent exhaustion of his estate required Wellesley to seek work. So, on March 7, 1787 he was accepted into the British Army as an ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot. After namedropping and schmoozing the right people, Wellesley was promoted to lieutenant. He was then sent to India and promoted to major general after victories at Srirangapatna and Mysore, and in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. Thereafter, he returned to England, where his services were soon needed against France in the Peninsular War, which culminated in his famous victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellesley became a national hero, and a grateful George III named him “Duke of Wellington”, which is how you probably know him.

Duke of Wellington
(click to enlarge)

The likeness was created by famed Spanish painter Francisco Goya. Unlike many artists, Goya was popular and well-regarded in his own day. He is known for being both the last of the “Old Masters” and the first “modern” painter, in much the same way that Beethoven is considered the last great composer of the “Classical period” but also the first of the “Romantic period”.

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In 1961, Charles Wrightsman, a rich American oilman and art collector, purchased the painting from the Duke of Leeds for £140,000 (around £3.1 million in 2021 currency, or $4.4 million US dollars). Wrightsman planned on taking the painting to the US, which created something of an outcry in England. Wellington was a national hero to most Brits. And to them the sale was not unlike a rich Chinese businessman buying Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington and taking it back to China with him:

(Not gonna happen.)

The British government sifted through the budget and came up with £140,000 to buy the painting and keep it in England. Most Brits weren’t too keen on spending that much money for a something as trivial as a painting. After all, wartime food rationing had only ended on July 4, 1954, and the British economy was only just beginning to take off again. Still, most were happy that a national treasure wasn’t going to be taken away by another of those upstart Americans.

*     *     *

But one person was really mad about it: a retired bus driver named Kempton Bunton. Bunton lived off a pension and reportedly only made £8 in 1961 (£182.11 in 2020 currency, or $252 US dollars).

In the UK, people pay an annual license fee to own a TV. In 2021, the fee was £159 for color TVs ($219) and £53.50 for B&W TVs ($74). This fee is used to fund the BBC, which operates ten TV channels, sixteen radio stations and three large websites. The fee is why BBC programs have no commercial breaks (contrary to popular American belief, the BBC runs plenty of promos for upcoming TV and radio shows between programs, and other British networks, like ITV and Channel 4, have as many commercials as US channels).

Most Americans would consider the license fee a “tax”, since it’s required by law and collected by the government. Most Britons don’t see it that way, though. They see it as a fee for quality television that just happens to be collected by the government for the convenience of a semi-private corporation.

But Bunton was furious that the British government would pay £140,000 for a painting while simultaneously asking pensioners to fork over £5 a year for a TV license (which, adjusted for inflation, is £113.82 or $157). Obviously, if Bunton only made £8 in 1961 and a license fee was £5 a year, he was spending an outrageous amount of his income just on a license. In fact, it’s unlikely that the £3 he’d had left over after paying for a license could even pay the electricity to power the TV for a year… to say nothing of buying food and shelter.

Shortly after the sale was complete, the painting was put on display in triumph at the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London. And so Bunton went down to see the artwork that had cost the taxpayers so dearly. He started chatting with the guards, who no doubt saw Bunton as just another unassuming, non-threatening elderly man. So disarmed, they casually revealed to him that the infrared sensors and other electronic security devices were disabled early in the morning so that the janitorial staff could clean around the painting.

Learning this, Bunton went to the nearest toilet and unlocked the window. The next morning he returned to the Gallery, jimmied open the toilet window from the outside, hauled himself through the window, waited until no one was around, grabbed the painting, and left the same way he came in.

British police were certain that the theft was the work of a high-tech gang of art thieves, like something out of The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s 11. So that’s the direction the investigation took.

The press, unsurprisingly, had a field day with the story. The theft entered public consciousness not just in newspapers and TV news, but in Dr. No as well, where it’s assumed that the all-powerful Dr. No has stolen the painting, hence Bond’s surprised reaction to seeing the artwork in his lair.

The theft was also the subject of countless conversations in pubs, where it was whispered that Wrightsman might be a suspect. After all, wasn’t it curious that he’d bought the painting and lost it to the British government… and it mysteriously disappeared a few weeks later? Although Wrightsman had nothing to do with the crime, the link between the two gave rise of the modern myth of “art theft to order”, where rich art collectors allegedly hire thieves to steal specific works of art (although often hinted at as a motive in heists, as far as I know, no major work of art has ever been stolen in this manner).

Then the Metropolitan Police received the first of a series of bizarre ransom notes. In them, the alleged captor promised the safe return of the painting… so long as the British government used £140,000, the same amount used to buy the painting, to start a fund to buy TV licenses for the elderly. The police didn’t take the notes seriously at first – who would? – but the letters continued to arrive. The second one read, in part:

The Duke is safe. His temperature cared for – his future uncertain. The painting is neither to be cloakroomed or kiosked, as such would defeat our purpose and leave us to ever open arrest. We want pardon or the right to leave the country – banishment? We ask that some nonconformist type of person with the fearless fortitude of a Montgomery start the fund for £140,000. No law can touch him. Propriety may frown – but God must smile.

The police still weren’t convinced, even after the third ransom letter arrived:

[Scotland] Yard are looking for a needle in a haystack, but they haven’t a clue where the haystack is. . . I am offering three-pennyworth of old Spanish firewood in exchange for 140,000 of human happiness. A real bargain compared to a near million for a scruffy piece of Italian cardboard.

In 1965 the Daily Mirror received an interesting letter purportedly from the thief. The letter included a ticket from the baggage check at Birmingham New Street rail station. The person who checked the bag used the nom de guerre “Mr. Bloxham”, which is most likely from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, in which a baby is found in a piece of luggage at a baggage check at a railway station. Inside the bag, Mirror journalists found the painting.

On July 19, 1965, Bunton walked in to a police station and turned himself in for the crime. Many had a hard time believing that this elderly, 252-pound man had pulled off the art heist of the century, but Bunton swore up and down that he’d done it. He even pointed to clues he’d left in his ransom letters concerning the back of the canvas, details that only one in possession of the painting would know. Given that, police had no other choice but to arrest him. The press, for their part, were quick to point out that Bunton had been cited at least twice before for not paying his TV license.

But Bunton had one more trick up his sleeve. Put on trial for the theft, Bunton pointed out a loophole in British law where if the jury believed that he had always intended to return the painting after negotiating with authorities in good faith, they (the jury) were required to acquit him. After some research, the judge grudgingly agreed that Bunton was right, so the jury consequently found him not guilty of stealing the painting.

However, since the painting’s frame had not been returned, he was found guilty of stealing that. The judge sentenced Bunton to three months in prison and told him that “motives, even if they are good, cannot justify theft, and creeping into public galleries in order to extract pictures of value so that you can use them for your own purposes has got to be discouraged”.

The theft produced lasting changes in British law. For starters, Parliament’s Theft Act of 1968 made it illegal “to remove without authority any object displayed or kept for display to the public in a building to which the public have access”, thus closing the loophole Bunton had used to avoid prosecution for the crime.

More endearingly, Parliament acquiesced to Bunton’s demands and introduced a significant discount to the license fee for elderly citizens. TV licenses are now free for households who have a family member aged 75 and older living with them (the age has slowly crept up as life expectancy has increased). For those who are 60 and older who live in nursing homes the fee is only £7.50 per person per year.

4 Replies to “The Strangest Theft”

  1. Car Trouble: Upon stealing the get a way car a courting couple delayed the action while Bunton was stuck under the vehichle. 30 minutes grunting. With painting in hand he had to push start the old Woolsey after jumping from the back wall of the gallery. Not ideal. On get a way with painting in back seat he got stopped by police at the Sherlock Holmes, they looked him in the eyes and told him to get his head light fixed, then waved him on! You couldn’t make this up!

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