04/03/2014 at 02:05 PM EDT
A Paul Gauguin still life stolen from a wealthy collector's home in Britain decades ago has been recovered after hanging for 40 years in a Sicilian autoworker's kitchen.
The worker bought the painting along with one of lesser value by another French artist, Pierre Bonnard, for about $100 at a 1975 Italian state railway auction of unclaimed lost items, said Maj. Massimiliano Quagliarella of the paramilitary Carabinieri art theft squad.
Italian authorities on Wednesday estimated the still life's worth in a range from 10 million euros to 30 million euros ($14 million to $40 million).
"The painting, showing fruit, seemed to fit in with dining room decor," Quagliarella told the Associated Press about the now-retired autoworker's choice of placement in his kitchen, first in Turin, then in Sicily.
The painting is believed to have "traveled" on a Paris-to-Turin train before it was found by railway personnel who put it in the lost-and-found depot, said Gen. Mariano Mossa. After the autoworker retired to Sicily, the man's son, who studied architecture, spotted 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 get an evaluation. The expert concluded the work was likely a Gauguin painting, and contacted the Carabinieri's division dedicated to recovering stolen and trafficked art and ancient artifacts.
Chris Marinello of Art Recovery International, which helps track down stolen artworks, said the story of treasures ending up in lost-and-found departments was not unprecedented.
Marinello said there could be a battle for ownership of the recovered paintings in Italy. Under Italian law, the autoworker could have a right to them if he could prove he bought them in good faith, he said.
"I'm sure this is not the last we will hear of this," Marinello said.