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Record NGA26

Archive reference number NGA26
Title

Hugh Courts' papers relating to the trial of Kempton Bunton

Date 1958-1966
Description

The papers were collected by Hugh Courts while he was acting as solicitor to Kempton Bunton for the theft of Goya's Duke of Wellington portrait. They mainly cover the two years from when he was assigned to represent Bunton, though to the trial and Bunton's release from prison. The collection includes correspondence with Bunton and the Counsel assigned to the defence, as well as various papers and press cuttings collected by, or given to Courts. There are also copies of official documents relating to the case and notes made by Courts during the trial.

Record type Collection
Paintings referenced in this record NG6322
Administrative history

Hugh Courts was a solictor who was assigned to a number of legal aid cases. In 1965 he was appointed to defend Kempton Bunton after the latter was accused of stealing Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery.

Kempton Bunton was born 14 June 1904 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He left school at 13 and joined the Merchant Navy for about two months. He spent eighteen months in Australia between 1926 and 1927 and on his return to England was employed in a variety of jobs including labourer and taxi driver. He had five children, including three sons, Kenneth, Thomas and John.

On 19 July 1965 Bunton surrended to the police, admitting to the theft of Francisco de Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery on 21 August 1961. The portrait had been returned six weeks previously. Bunton was charged with five offenses:

- Two offences contrary to section 2 of the Larceny Act 1916 by unlawfully taking the property of the Trustees of the National Gallery by stealing the portrait of the Duke of Wellington and stealing the frame.

- Two offences of demanding money with menace by sending threatening letters to Lord Robbins, Trustee of the National Gallery, and to the Daily Mirror Newspaper

- One offence of Public Nuisance as the unlawful removal of the portrait, prevented the public from viewing the painting

Bunton claimed he never intended to keep the portrait, but wanted £140,000 (the sum which had been paid for the portrait in 1961) to be given to charity to pay for television licences for old aged pensioners. While he was in possession of the painting he wrote 5 'Coms' (communications), first to Reuters and then to the Telegraph Exchange requesting the money. This followed on from his campaign in the early 1960s to get free television licences for old aged people in Newcastle. Throughout the case, Bunton maintained he acted alone.

Under the Poor Prisoners' Defence Act of 1930, Bunton was assigned legal aid and he selected Hugh Courts to represent him. Courts took the lead in gathering information that could be used in the defence and corresponded on Bunton's behalf, particularly with the press. Courts retained records and letters of how evidence was gathered and the exhibits examined. He also collected and filed more general information on Bunton and press coverage of the case.

The case was initially heard at Bow Street Magistrates' Court in August 1965 and was referred to trial at the Central Criminal Court between 4 and 16 November 1965 with Jeremy N. Hutchinson Q.C. assigned as lead Counsel and Eric Crowther as junior Counsel. The case for the prosecution was led by Edward Cussen and Brian Leary. Bunton was found guilty of stealing the frame, which had not been returned, and he was sentenced to three months imprisonment at H.M. Prison Ford.

In 1969 his son, John Bunton, confessed to the theft after being arrested for a different offence.

Custodial history

The papers were collected and retained by Hugh Courts and presented by him to the National Gallery Archive on Wednesday 1 May 2013

Related material

See also NG15/61 Transcript of Court proceedings of the trial of Kempton Bunton for the theft of Goya’s Duke of Wellington

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