THE bobby spotted a car going in the wrong direction down a one-way street behind the National Gallery and raised his hand.
The driver pulled over and was sent into the night after a telling off.
New movie 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 to secure free television licences for the elderlyCredit: Rex
But the copper failed to notice one thing — the stolen Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington in view on the back seat.
It was worth £2.8million in today’s money and had only been on display for 19 days after the Government stumped up cash to stop it going to a collector in New York.
Four years after the 1961 theft, moviegoers spotted an image of the vanished painting in Dr. No’s lair — the joke being that only a criminal mastermind like the Bond villain could have taken it.
Yet the 1812 masterpiece was in the back of an unemployed bus driver’s wardrobe in Newcastle.
Trailers and publicity for the film would have you believe that Broadbent’s character Kempton Bunton carried out the daring art heist — but the thief was actually the driver’s son, Jackie.
The movie also tells how Kempton, who died in 1976 aged 72, had hoped to use the painting to raise awareness of his crusade to secure free television licences for the elderly.
His 45-year-old grandson Chris tells The Sun: “My grandad witnessed his own dad come back from the war disabled and ending up isolated and alone.
“Kempton recognised the value of what the BBC did and felt it was a cure for loneliness.
“He felt this service should be available to everyone. I agree. I don’t think pensioners should ever have to pay for their licence fee.”
He went to prison three times for refusing to pay for one and was outraged that taxpayers’ money had been spent on the painting, rather than funding free TV for OAPs.
Four years after the portrait went missing, Kempton, then aged 61, handed it in.
Despite having confessed to the crime, a jury only found the portly offender guilty of stealing the frame, which was never recovered.
This incredible truth would have remained secret if Jackie, now aged 80 and in poor health, hadn’t felt the need to tell the truth.
During an overnight ferry journey, he decided to confess to a then 14-year-old Chris that he had stolen The Duke.
Jackie was a former petty criminal who had gone straight before becoming a parent and wasn’t one to speak about his past.
Dad-of-two Chris remembers: “It was amazing to hear and I didn’t realise the sheer scale of it.”
The story of how Jackie, 20 at the time of the theft, got his hands on the National Gallery’s prize exhibit was one of cunning — and good luck.
His son says: “My dad is a unique character, very practical. This was like a logical puzzle for him.
“He never expected 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 cased out the gallery, checking its security. The Goya was on an easel in the middle of the room, unalarmed, and he was able to place a small bit of fluff on it to see if it was moved overnight.
Jackie then left tape on a toilet cubicle lock and a matchstick on a window he had opened.
When he returned the next day, the tape, match and fluff were where he had left them — which gave him the green light to get in that way and take the painting.
He figured out that the building’s alarm system would be off when the cleaners were working at night.
Chris says: “There was a building site out the back which had a ladder. Everything was laid out. He said it was like God was helping him.”
But not everything went to plan. On the night of the burglary, Jackie went to Old Street garage in East London to hot-wire a Wolseley car.
But before he could get it going he heard voices close by.
Chris explains with a smile: “He closed the bonnet quickly and dived under the car. A couple came and got in the car next to him and proceeded to fool around for the next 45 minutes.
“He is stuck under this car, listening to this couple getting it on in the one next to him, waiting for them to finish.”
After they had gone, he drove to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. He was in and out in no time and everything was going to plan until the policeman stepped out in front of him.
Chris says: “He winds his window down and The Duke is right on the back seat. The officer berates him for going the wrong way and sends him on his way. You couldn’t make it up.”
Unfortunately, Jackie had not thought what he would do with a painting, and the theft was all over the news.
Chris admits: “My dad thought he could get ten per cent of the value of the painting from insurance companies. But that was only applicable for private works of art.”
Stumped, he told his dad Kempton what he had done. Fearing his son would go to prison for a very long stretch, he sent a letter offering to return the masterpiece if £140,000 was “given to charity.”
Despite sending more letters with lesser demands, they were never met, so in 1965 Kempton decided to leave it in a locker in Birmingham’s New Street station.
Chris explains: “Reading Kempton’s memoirs, he was sick of the sight of it after four years and wanted rid.”
Two months later, Kempton walked into a police station and confessed.
Jeremy Hutchinson, one of the country’s top barristers, took up the case.
Hutchinson argued that Kempton had “no evil intent” because he always intended to return the painting and had wanted to help pensioners get free TV.
The jury agreed and Kempton was only jailed for three months for the theft of the frame.
In 1969, Jackie also felt compelled to confess, but this time the authorities decided not to prosecute and that act of contrition was not made public.
Chris realised what a big story he was sitting on when the case made it back into the news on the 50th anniversary of the theft.
He read through unpublished playwright Kempton’s memoirs, wrote a script and sought legal advice to make sure he would not incriminate his dad by telling the truth.
But before sending it out to prospective movie production houses, he sought the permission of his parents.
Chris recalls: “They were fully behind the idea.
“My dad didn’t think it would happen. He knew that Kempton tried to get lots of things published and failed.
“He said to my mam, ‘If Kempton couldn’t do it, I don’t see why he thinks he can’.
“There were other family members, cousins and stuff, who were really against it.”
They didn’t want the Buntons’ involvement in the crime being brought up again.
Half of the film producers that Chris wrote to showed an interest and he went with Nicky Bentham, who made the cult sci-fi hit Moon.
Chris, who is an entrepreneur and lives in New York, explains: “Nicky really bought into the messages that I felt were important.
“For me it was always a story about a working-class struggle, my family, their struggle through poverty.
“My grandparents’ family had a lot of tragedy. They actually had four siblings who passed away.
“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 make it.
Sadly, it was Roger’s final movie because he died age 65 in September. It has all the hallmarks of his comic brilliance, with Broadbent and Mirren as Kempton’s wife Dorothy giving laugh-out-loud performances.
Chris says: “They have done a brilliant job with it.”
After confessing to his crime, Jackie became a fruit machine mechanic and settled down.
Chris concludes: “He has watched the film one time, at my brother’s house, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet.
“He was amazed it got to this point. It was surreal for him. It seems like The Duke is entwined in our lives for 60 years.
“My grandad, at the end of his memoirs, writes, ‘What a magnificent adventure it was’.”
- The Duke is in cinemas from Friday.
The art of the steal
THE Goya theft is just one of many daring art heists. Mike Ridley reveals some of the biggest.
Blenheim Palace Woodstock, 2019
ITALIAN artist Maurizio Cattelan’s £5million, 18-carat solid gold toilet is still missing, despite a £100,000 reward. The theft caused a flood as the loo was plumbed in.
Ashmolean Museum Oxford, 2000
WHILE Britain celebrated on New Year’s Eve, two thieves cut a hole in a skylight and stole Auvers-sur-Oise, a £3million painting by Paul Cézanne. It has never been recovered.
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 2003
A COUPLE of days after they were stolen, three works by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin were found in a nearby public toilet – dubbed “the Loo-vre”. The mystery thieves left a message claiming they only wanted “to highlight the woeful security”.
Much Hadam, Herts, 2005
HENRY MOORE’S Reclining Figure – an 11ft-long bronze sculpture weighing two tons and worth £3million – is believed to have been sold to scrap merchants for £1,500 then melted down following its theft.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, US, 1990
TWO thieves stole 13 artworks worth £500million, including one of only 34 existing paintings by Johannes Vermeer, below. The museum still hangs empty frames where the artworks were stolen from.
The portrait of The Duke had only been on display for 19 days after the Government stumped up cash to stop it going to a collector in New YorkCredit: Alamy
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 vanished painting in Dr. No’s lairCredit: Not known, clear with picture desk
Kempton’s grandson Chris, wrote the movie’s screenplayCredit: PROVIDED/CHRIS BUNTON