Where would you buy a Paul Gaugin for less than €22?

State auctioneer told Italian worker in 1970s two paintings he liked were ‘just rubbish’

Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini with two recovered paintings, by Paul Gauguin (work on left) and Pierre Bonnard, at a news conference in Rome yesterday. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

Italy’s culture minister Dario Franceschini with two recovered paintings, by Paul Gauguin (work on left) and Pierre Bonnard, at a news conference in Rome yesterday. Photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters

 

Giovanni Nicolo has every reason to believe that 40 years ago he landed the bargain of a lifetime at a lost property auction in Turin’s Porta Nuovo train station.

At the time, Nicolo was a Fiat car worker who earned a very modest wage of about €100 a month in today’s money, working on the night shift.

As he says now, the €22 equivalent he splashed out for two paintings found on the Paris-Turin night train “was quite a lot for a Sicilian migrant worker”.

When he first offered to buy the paintings, the state auctioneer cheerfully informed him that they were “just rubbish”. Undeterred, Nicolo went to the subsequent auction where the unsold paintings were still on offer. This time, he took his courage in his hand and splashed out the sum of 45,000 lira - roughly €22 in today’s money.

He says now that he just loved the paintings in question - two still lifes of the table, tablecloth, fruit bowl and garden variety. For years the two paintings hung in Nicolo’s kitchen and then his living room, first in Turin and later in Palermo, after he and his family had returned to Sicily.

He was pleased with them but paid them little attention until his son, who was studying architecture in Siracusa, became curious.

Having noticed that one of the paintings bore the signature, “Bonnato”, Nicolo jnr went looking for a book about a painter of the same name. He could only find books about a French guy called “Bonnard” so he bought one of them instead.

Flicking through the book, he was astonished to find a picture of Bonnard, sitting happily in his garden - a garden that looked exactly like the one in his father’s painting.

Suspecting that maybe the two paintings might be originals by some minor artist, the family set about having them assessed by experts.

At first they were dismissed by various art dealers and collectors who, like the station auctioneer, considered them worthless.

Finally, still unconvinced, they consulted the Protection of the Cultural Patrimony, a branch of the carabinieri or police force. After lengthy examinations, the Cultural Patrimony people pronounced both paintings not only original but also very valuable given that although one of them is by Bonnard, the other is by none less than Paul Gaugin.

The paintings were confirmed by experts to be Girl Seated In The Garden by Pierre Bonnard and Still Life by Paul Gaugin.

Police also informed the family the two works had been stolen from the Kennedy Marks family in London in 1970 (the Marks in question was Mathilda Marks, daughter of Michael Marks, co-founder of Marks & Spencer).

The big question, now, obviously concerns the future fate of the paintings. State investigators say if relatives of the Kennedy Marks family can be identified, the paintings should be returned to them.

Nicolo obviously hopes he can hold onto them, pointing out that he bought them fair and square at an auction run by a state body. If he gets to keep the paintings he might sell the Gaugin, he says, adding: “To my kids, I’ve always said, if you love art, art will repay you.”