Dad stole £2.8m painting from National Gallery, now his story is in new Helen Mirren film The Duke

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LE bobby spotted a car going in the wrong direction on a one-way street behind the National Gallery and raised his hand.

The driver pulled over and was sent off overnight after a reprimand.

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New film The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent, tells the true story of the theft of a portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National GalleryCredit: Alamy
Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton, who had hoped to use the painting to raise awareness of his crusade for free television licenses for the elderly

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Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton, who had hoped to use the painting to raise awareness of his crusade for free television licenses for the elderly1 credit

But the cop didn’t notice one thing: the stolen portrait of the Duke of Wellington by Goya, visible in the back seat.

It was worth £2.8million in today’s silver and had only been on display for 19 days after the government hoarded money to stop it going to a collector in New York.

Four years after the 1961 robbery, moviegoers spotted an image of the missing painting in Dr No’s lair – the joke being that only a criminal mastermind like the villainous Bond could have taken it.

Yet the 1812 masterpiece sat deep in the wardrobe of an unemployed Newcastle bus driver.

The story of this extraordinary flight is now told in the new film The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren.

Trailers and publicity for the film would have you believe Broadbent’s character Kempton Bunton pulled off the daring art heist – but the thief was actually the driver’s son, Jackie.

The film also tells how Kempton, who died in 1976 aged 72, had hoped to use the painting to raise awareness of his crusade to win free television licenses for the elderly.

His 45-year-old grandson, Chris, told The Sun: “My grandfather saw his own father come back from the war mutilated and find himself isolated and alone.

“Kempton recognized the value of what the BBC did and felt it was a cure for loneliness.

“He felt that this service should be accessible to everyone. I am okay. I don’t think retirees should ever have to pay their license fee.

He went to jail three times for refusing to pay for one, and was outraged that taxpayers’ money was spent on the painting, rather than funding free-to-air television for OAPs.

Four years after the portrait disappeared, Kempton, then 61, returned it.

Although he confessed to the crime, a jury only found the portly offender guilty of stealing the frame, which was never found.

This incredible truth would have remained secret if Jackie, now 80 years old and in poor health, had not felt the need to tell the truth.

During an overnight ferry trip, he decided to confess to Chris, then 14, that he had stolen The Duke.

Jackie was a former petty criminal who left right before becoming a parent and was not one to talk about his past.

Chris, a father of two, recalls: “It was amazing to hear and I didn’t realize the magnitude of it.”

The story of how Jackie, 20 at the time of the robbery, got her hands on the National Gallery prize exhibit was one of cunning – and good luck.

His son says, “My dad is a unique, very practical character. It was like a logic puzzle for him.

My dad always thought he’d bottle it’

“He didn’t expect to do it. He always thought he would bottle it.

Arriving in London from Newcastle with just 50p in his pocket, Jackie got a job delivering fur coats and stayed in a men’s hostel.

He closed the gallery, checking its security. The Goya was on an easel in the middle of the room, without an alarm, and he was able to place a small piece of plush on it to see if it had been moved during the night.

Jackie then left duct tape on a bathroom stall lock and a match on a window he had opened.

When he returned the next day, the duct tape, match, and fluff were where he left them – giving him the green light to walk down that path and take the painting.

He figured out that the building’s alarm system would be turned off when the housekeepers were working at night.

Chris says: “There was a building site out back that had a ladder. Everything has been fitted out. He said it felt like God was helping him.

But not everything went as planned. On the night of the burglary, Jackie drove to the Old Street garage in east London to hot plug a Wolseley car.

But before he could start it, he heard voices nearby.

Chris explains with a smile: “He closed the bonnet quickly and dove under the car. A couple came and got in the car next to him and started having fun for the next 45 minutes.

“He’s stuck under this car, listening to this couple get into the one next to him, waiting for them to finish.”

After they left, he drove to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. He was in and out in no time and everything was going to get ready until the policeman came out in front of him.

Chris says, “He rolls down his window and the Duke is right in the backseat. The officer reprimands him for taking the wrong way and dismisses him. You couldn’t catch up.

Unfortunately, Jackie hadn’t thought about what he would do with a painting, and the theft made headlines.

Chris admits: “My dad thought he could get ten percent of the value of the painting from the insurance companies. But this only applied to private works of art.

Puzzled, he told his father Kempton what he had done. Fearing his son would go to jail for a very long time, he sent a letter offering to return the masterpiece if £140,000 was ‘donated to charity’.

Despite sending more letters with lesser demands, they were never met, so in 1965 Kempton decided to leave her in a locker at New Street station in Birmingham.

Chris explains: “Reading Kempton’s memoir he was tired of seeing them after four years and wanted to get rid of them.”

Two months later, Kempton walked into a police station and confessed.
Jeremy Hutchinson, one of the top lawyers in the country, took on the case.

Hutchinson argued that Kempton had “no bad intentions” as he had always intended to return the painting and wanted to help pensioners get free television.

The jury agreed, and Kempton was jailed for only three months for the theft of the frame.

“It’s about my family’s fight against poverty”

In 1969, Jackie also felt compelled to confess, but this time the authorities decided not to prosecute and this act of contrition was not made public.

Chris realized how seated he was when the case came back into the news on the 50th anniversary of the robbery.

He read playwright Kempton’s unpublished memoir, wrote a screenplay and sought legal advice to ensure he would not incriminate his father by telling the truth.

But before sending it to possible film production houses, he asked his parents’ permission.

Chris recalls: “They were totally behind the idea.

“My dad didn’t think this would happen. He knew Kempton had tried to get a lot of stuff published and failed.

“He said to my mum, ‘If Kempton couldn’t do it, I don’t see why he thinks he can’.

“There were other family members, cousins ​​and such, who were really against it.”

They did not want the Buntons’ involvement in the crime to be brought up again.

Half of the film producers Chris wrote to showed interest and he went with Nicky Bentham, who directed the cult sci-fi film Moon.

Chris, who is an entrepreneur and lives in New York, explains: “Nicky really bought into the messages that I thought were important.

“For me, it was always the story of a working-class struggle, my family, their struggle against poverty.

“My grandparents’ family went through a lot of tragedy. In fact, they had four siblings who are deceased.

“My dad never talked about it, I think because it was too painful.”

The script was rewritten and legendary Notting Hill director Roger Michell agreed to direct.

Sadly, it was Roger’s last film as he died aged 65 in September. It has all the hallmarks of his comedic genius, with Broadbent and Mirren as Kempton’s wife Dorothy giving hilarious performances.

Chris says, “They did a brilliant job with it.”

After confessing to his crime, Jackie became a fruit machine mechanic and settled down.

Chris concludes: “He saw the film once, at my brother’s house, but he hasn’t really understood it yet.

“He was amazed that it had come to this point. It was surreal for him. It seems The Duke has been intertwined in our lives for 60 years.

“My grandfather, at the end of his memoir, writes: ‘What a wonderful adventure it was’.”

  • The Duke is in theaters from Friday.

The art of flight

Goya’s robbery is just one of many daring art heists. Mike Ridley reveals some of the greats.

Blenheim Palace Woodstock, 2019

ITALIAN artist Maurizio Cattelan’s £5million 18k solid gold toilet is still missing, despite a £100,000 reward. The theft caused a flood while the toilets were sealed.

Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, 2000

WHILE Britain was celebrating New Year’s Eve, two thieves punched a hole in a skylight and stole a £3 million painting by Paul Cézanne in Auvers-sur-Oise. It was never recovered.

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 2003

A FEW days after their theft, three works by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin were found in a nearby public toilet – nicknamed “the Loo-vre”. The mysterious thieves left a message saying they only wanted to “highlight the dismal security”.

Much Hadam, Herts, 2005

The reclining figure of HENRY MOORE – an 11ft long bronze sculpture weighing two tonnes and worth £3million – is believed to have been sold to scrap dealers for £1,500 and then melted down after it was stolen.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, USA, 1990

TWO thieves have stolen 13 works of art worth £500million, including one of 34 existing paintings by Johannes Vermeer, below. The museum still hangs empty frames where the works were stolen.

The Duke's portrait had only been on display for 19 days after the government paid money to stop it going to a collector in New York.

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The Duke’s portrait had only been on display for 19 days after the government paid money to stop it going to a collector in New York.Credit: Alamy
Kempton was only jailed for three months for the theft of the frame (pictured: Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in The Duke)

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Kempton was only jailed for three months for the theft of the frame (pictured: Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren in The Duke)Credit: Alamy
Four years after the 1961 theft, moviegoers spotted an image of the missing painting in Dr. No's lair

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Four years after the 1961 theft, moviegoers spotted an image of the missing painting in Dr. No’s lairCredit: Unknown, clear with photo office
Kempton's grandson Chris wrote the screenplay for the film

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Kempton’s grandson Chris wrote the screenplay for the filmCredit: SUPPLIED/CHRIS BUNTON
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