A retired Italian autoworker and art-lover has turned over two paintings — including a still life by Paul Gauguin — that have hung in his kitchen for nearly four decades after learning they had been stolen in 1970.

Gauguin's Fruits sur une table ou nature au petit chien and La femme aux deux fauteuils by Pierre Bonnard were snatched from a private collection in London in 1970, Italy's Carabinieri art theft squad revealed at a press conference in Rome on Wednesday.

The Gauguin is worth between 10-30 million (about $15.2-$46.7 million Cdn), while the Bonnard's value is estimated to be approximately 600,000 (about $913,000 Cdn), according to the art squad representative.

Somehow, the paintings turned up in Italy, where they were left on a train. Italian rail officials, unaware of their value or provenance, sold them at an auction of lost or abandoned goods in 1975.

A retired Fiat worker purchased the two paintings for the equivalent of $100 at the time and — since the Gauguin depicted fruit — hung them on his kitchen wall, first in Turin and then in Sicily when he moved there upon his retirement.

After his son noticed similarities to Gauguin works and pointed them out, the family consulted experts and then alerted police, who have now recovered the paintings.

Detective work

"It's an incredible story, an amazing recovery. A symbol of all the work which Italian art police have put in over the years behind the scenes," Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told journalists on Wednesday.

Once alerted, the Carabinieri art theft squad worked to trace the history of the two paintings, ultimately discovering a photo of the Gauguin from a London auction in 1961 and newspaper articles about the theft in 1970. Squad officials have been in contact with London's Scotland Yard.

However, in a statement issued Wednesday, Scotland Yard said it has not been able trace official records of the theft.

According to Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International, there could ultimately be a battle for ownership of the recovered paintings. The autoworker could have a right to them under Italian law if he can prove he bought them in good faith, Marinello said.

With files from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse