Britain’s most audacious art thief can finally be revealed for the first time.
A new movie starring Helen Mirren tells the story of how Kempton Bunton was put on trial in 1965 for stealing a portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery,
But secret papers reveal his son Jackie – pictured here for the first time by MailOnline – confessed that he was the real thief who shimmied through a window to snatch the priceless Goya depiction of the Duke in 1961.
The 80-year-old has lived a solitary life in a flat on the banks of the River Tyne since the death of his wife three years ago.
When approached about his confession, made five years after his dad was jailed, Jackie declined to comment and said he’d rather leave the escapade in the past.
The theft has been turned into new film ‘The Duke’ with Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, which has thrown a fresh focus on the infamous incident.
The sensational crime captured the imagination of the British public – and even earned itself a cameo part in the first James Bond film, Dr No in 1962, a year after the mysterious theft.
Jackie Bunton, 80, is pictured walking near his home in Newcastle last week
Kempton Bunton was convicted in 1965 of stealing Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington
The theft is being turned into new film The Duke with Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent
When Sean Connery is first led into the secret undersea lair of the arch-villain, he stops and does a double-take by what appears to be the stolen painting, the implication being that Dr No had stolen it to order.
The truth was more like an Ealing comedy than a Hollywood heist.
Kempton claimed it was he who stealthily evaded the guards after climbing through an open window and escaping with the portrait.
The new movie will tell the story of how Kempton, who died in 1976, turned the theft into a noble cause, holding it hostage whilst demanding better care for Britain’s elderly from the Government.
But something about the story didn’t add up. Kempton, a 57-year-old retired bus driver wasn’t in the best of health and at 18 stone would have struggled to wriggle through the narrow gap he claimed to have negotiated.
Years later a new theory emerged – that Jackie, then a fit 20-year-old, was in fact responsible and his dad had taken the rap to spare him a spell in jail.
The National Archives released a prosecutor’s file which claimed that Jackie had made a detailed confession to the crime.
At his home today, however, he was less talkative.
Asked by MailOnline whether he stood by his confession, Jackie gave a secretive smile and said: ‘Those things are best left in the past. Everything that needed to be said was said in the court case all those years ago, I don’t get involved any more.
‘I know about the film, the film company has been kicking around for about three years now.
‘I’ll probably watch it, but I don’t talk about what happened back then.’
Jackie, of North Shields, North Tyneside, declined to say whether he’d cooperated with the making of the movie.
The Duke has received strong reviews from the critics as it brings the daring theft to life
His confession came about in 1969 because that year he was arrested in Leeds for a petty offence, it is claimed, and realised whilst being fingerprinted that his crime of eight years earlier may now be detected.
He told police that just before dawn on Monday, August 21, 1961, he had used a parking meter to haul himself over the back wall of the gallery.
Spotting a 20ft ladder left by builder he used it to access the open window and squeezed through the gap – a more likely version of events for a 20-year-old than that told by his father.
He saw the painting in its customary place on an easel in a nook at the top of the main staircase.
Jackie told sceptical detectives that his motive in stealing the painting was to ‘draw attention to my father’s campaign against pensioners having to pay the BBC licence fee.’
When the police asked why he or his brother, Kenneth, who knew the secret, hadn’t come forward when his father faced an Old Bailey trial, he replied: ‘He told us not to. Ordered us. It was his wish.’
According to the prosecutor’s file, Jackie told police how he stole the painting, which he referred to as ‘the photo.’
‘I went there, grabbed it and carried it back to the men’s room,’ he said. ‘I climbed the wall, still holding the photo in one hand. . . I put the photo in the back seat of the car and drove back to Grafton Street (where he lived). I then put the photo under my bed.’
Kempton (left) was jailed over the theft but it is claimed he admitted the crime and created a bogus reason for committing it to spare his son Jackie (right) from a jail term
In the style of a true British caper, Jackie told the bemused officers his old Wolseley car wouldn’t start and he had to push his getaway vehicle until the engine fired.
His dad, he claimed, had ordered him to keep the truth secret and made a bogus confession to spare his boy.
Sir Norman Skelhorn, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, told police that Jackie’s confession alone was not enough to prosecute him.
The case remained in the forefront of the public consciousness because of the extraordinary series of anonymous ransom notes, sent to the media. The first arrived at Reuters news agency in August 1961, postmarked ‘London SW1’.
The writer gave details of identifying features on the back of the painting that could only have been known to the thief, then went on: ‘Query not that I have the Goya . .. The picture is not, will not be for sale . . . it is for ransom — £140,000 — to be given to charity.’
On September 26 a reward of £5,000 was offered for the painting’s return. Another ‘COM’ letter, postmarked ‘Lancaster, Morecambe’, was received by the Exchange Telegraph News Agency on July 4, 1962, and read, enigmatically: ‘The Duke is safe. His temperature cared for — his future uncertain . . .’
The authorities stone-walled the demands, and finally, realising perhaps that his scheme — whether a money-making scheme or a laudable act on behalf of pensioners — was doomed to failure, Kempton decided to fess up.
On May 25, 1965, he sent a final note to the Daily Mirror, containing a left-luggage ticket, Number F24458, from Birmingham New Street station. Police rushed to the station found the missing painting of the Duke of Wellington — none the worse for wear, but minus its frame. The Goya was declared to be genuine by the National Gallery.
Two months later, Kempton walked into New Scotland Yard and confessed to having stolen the portrait. He feared blackmail after letting something slip to a friend down the pub.
He told police, ‘My sole purpose in all of this was to set up a charity to pay for television licenses for old and poor people who seem to have been neglected in our affluent society.’
Broadbent stars in the dramatisation of the audacious art theft from the National Gallery
Kempton (left) claimed he stole the painting to set up a charity to pay for old people’s TV licenses. Broadbent (right) bares a striking resemblance to the man he’s playing
In his native Newcastle, Kempton had started a campaign to exempt retirees from paying the licence fee and he became a local hero because of it.
In 1960, he spent a total of 69 days in prison for refusing to pay a television license after modifying his set to receive only ITV. He struck – or far more likely his son did – the following year whilst unemployed and living on £8 a week National Assistance.
In 1961, Charles Bierer Wrightsman, a rich American art collector the painting painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington for the sum of £140,000 or £3million today. He had plans to take it to the US until the UK government stepped in and bought the painting, for the same sum, to prevent the painting leaving Britain. The move was reported to have enraged Kempton, however, who was embittered at having to pay the television licence fee from his modest income.
Broadbent stars in the dramatisation of the audacious art theft, with Dunkirk star Fionn Whitehead playing Jackie, though it is believed the film – which received a rapturous reception at the 2020 Venice Film Festival – portrays Kempton as the mastermind of the heist.
In fact, his son’s witness statement, and that of Pamela Smith, who was dating Kempton’s eldest son, Ken, made it clear that Jackie only roped in his father after the theft.
In 1965 Ms Smith told officers: ‘When Jackie stole it from the gallery, he had just taken any picture, he didn’t go there for the Goya. Jackie was alone in London, he stole the painting and then wrote to his father, told him he was in trouble.
Ken told me that Jackie wanted to burn it or write it off as a bad job.’ She claimed that Kempton and Jackie agreed to try to sell their story to a newspaper after the trial and split the proceeds.
The release of the film was held up by the pandemic and is set for September.
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