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Goya's Wellington: The Duke Disappears

James Whitfield on why the theft of a Spanish master’s portrait of a British military hero led to a change in the law.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington 1812-14 by Goya (National Gallery, London).On August 3rd, 1961 the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square proudly unveiled its latest acquisition: what is known as the bust portrait of the Duke of Wellington by the Spanish master Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), painted during the Peninsular War and completed in 1814. Eighteen days later the duke went absent without leave from the gallery. His unauthorised removal made headline news, stumped all attempts by Scotland Yard to solve the crime and, in 1968, prompted the Government to introduce a new criminal offence. Theories as to who may have been responsible for the theft, the first in the National Gallery’s 138-year history, abounded; all were to prove wide of the mark.

In May 1965 the portrait was discovered in a left-luggage locker at Birmingham’s New Street railway station. Two months later a 61-year-old man named Kempton Bunton from Newcastle-upon-Tyne surrendered himself to Scotland Yard and confessed that he had taken the portrait from the National Gallery. He was charged with theft and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. What seemed an open and shut case proved to be anything but and revealed a glaring deficiency in the larceny laws of England and Wales.

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