Revealed: Bus driver jailed for stealing Goya’s painting of Duke of Wellington from the National Portrait Gallery in 1965 didn’t do it, new documents show as Helen Mirren stars in new film

  • Theft from the National Gallery by a retired bus driver is famous heist in history 
  • But it emerged police were told during the 1965 trial they convicted wrong man
  • Document that could have spared Bunton his prison term has been unearthed

The audacious theft of a masterpiece from the National Gallery by a retired Geordie bus driver is among the most famous art heists in history – and it will soon be the subject of a new film, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren.

But in a fresh twist to the bizarre case, it has emerged that police were told during the 1965 trial of the man who was convicted and jailed over the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington that they had the wrong man.

During the Old Bailey hearing, Kempton Bunton claimed he had intended to hold the painting ‘to ransom’ to draw attention to the plight of pensioners struggling to pay their TV licence fees.

Mr Kempton Bunton, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, who was accused of stealing the Goya painting

Portrait of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington’, 1814. In 1969 Jackie Bunton confessed to stealing the Goya but it was decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him

But many people questioned how a 57-year-old man weighing 18st could have squeezed through an open toilet window in the early hours of August 21, 1961, and made off with the priceless portrait.

Now, a crucial document that could have spared Bunton his prison term has been unearthed by The Mail on Sunday. In a witness statement to the Metropolitan police on November 11, 1965, Pamela Smith, who was dating Bunton’s eldest son Ken, alleges that his youngest son, John, was the real culprit.

Pointing the finger at the 20-year-old van driver who lived in London and was known as Jackie, she 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.

She added: ‘Kempton himself is not interested in pensioners, he is just looking after himself.’ She told police she did not want to give evidence. The portrait, which had been bought in 1961 by the Government for £140,000 (the equivalent of £3.2 million today), was eventually found in a locker at New Street Station in Birmingham before Kempton Bunton gave himself up to the police.

The film is due for release in September, with Broadbent starring as Kempton Bunton and Mirren as his wife Dorothy

His lawyers argued he could not be convicted because he had planned to return the painting. He was jailed for three months for stealing the frame.

In 1969 Jackie Bunton confessed to stealing the Goya but it was decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. Last night, the Metropolitan Police declined to comment.

The film is due for release in September, with Broadbent starring as Kempton Bunton and Mirren as his wife Dorothy. Its director, Roger Michell, told last year’s Venice Film Festival: ‘This is a very strange, very English, eccentric story.’

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