The painting is believed to have "traveled" on a Paris-to-Turin train before the worker purchased it, said Gen. Mariano Mossa. When the autoworker retired to Sicily, the man's son, who studied architecture, noticed a telling detail: a dog curled up in the corner. Dogs were sometimes a signature motif for Gauguin's work.
The man's son contacted an art expert to give an evaluation. The expert concluded the work was likely a Gauguin painting, and he contacted the Carabinieri.
The painting depicts two bowls, brimming with brightly colored grapes, apples and other pieces of fruit, posed on a table. In black on the canvas is painted "89," an indication that it was painted in 1889. It now measures 46.5 centimeters by 53 centimeters (about 18 by 20 inches). That is slightly smaller than the work as Gaugin created it because the thieves had cut it out of its frame, police said.
The painting will remain in the custody of the art squad because the police have yet to receive an official notice that it is stolen, Quagliarella said. The art squad traced it using newspaper articles in 1970 reporting the theft of a wealthy London family's collection.
Italy's culture minister Dario Franceschini called the recovery of the painting an "extraordinary" find and an "incredible" story.
London's Scotland Yard has been in contact with Italian police, but said in a statement Wednesday it had not been possible to trace the records of the theft in the 1970s. Italian police said they found a photo of the painting in a June, 28, 1961 auction in London.
Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International, which helps track stolen artworks, said the story of treasures was remarkable but not unprecedented.
In 2006, the Duchess of Argyll lost a tiara, a diamond Cartier brooch and other jewels at Glasgow Airport. Six years later they were put up for auction. It turned out they had been sold by the airport as unclaimed property. After negotiations, they were returned to the duchess.
Marinello said there could be a battle for ownership of the recovered paintings. He said the autoworker could have a right to them under Italian law if he could prove he bought them in good faith.
"I'm sure this is not the last we will hear of this," Marinello said.