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Leonardo da Vinci feud: The ‘earlier’ Mona Lisa mystery

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Two women sit beneath a Mona Lisa painting hanging above the fireplace of a 1960s London flatImage copyright
Gilbert family

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The disputed painted hanging in the London flat of art dealer Henry Pulitzer in the 1960s

A painting of the Mona Lisa hangs above a fireplace in a London flat in the 1960s. Is this picture not only by Leonardo da Vinci, but also an earlier version of the world famous portrait that hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris?

Some people are convinced it is, and more than 50 years later, a bitter battle has erupted over both the ownership of the picture and the evidence about who painted it.

The so-called “Earlier Mona Lisa” is at the heart of a mystery that involves Caribbean tax havens, Swiss bank vaults, a mysterious international consortium, and the Sherlock Holmes of the art world.

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Media captionIn 1979, the BBC got a glimpse of the “Earlier Mona Lisa” when it was held by a previous owner inside a Swiss bank vault

So is it genuine? Who are the rightful owners? And could the portrait at the centre of this Da Vinci Code-style mystery be worth hundreds of millions of dollars?

A court case in Italy this week may finally help shed some light on the answers to these questions.

A second Mona Lisa?

In 2012, an organisation called the Mona Lisa Foundation unveiled to the world, in a blaze of publicity, what it claimed to be a second painting of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

Since the Mona Lisa is possibly the world’s most famous painting, and its painter is regarded as one of history’s greatest artists, such a find would turn the art world upside down.

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AFP

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A comparison between the two paintings displayed by the Mona Lisa Foundation at a presentation in Geneva, Switzerland

The foundation set out an array of evidence to try to back up the claim that the painting was a second, previously unknown version of the portrait. But curiously the organisation claims it doesn’t own the painting.

It says the picture is owned by an unnamed international consortium. When asked about this, the foundation’s general secretary, Joël Feldman, replies: “The foundation, as a matter of policy and in compliance with its obligations, does not comment on the ownership consortium.”

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AFP

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The Earlier Mona Lisa painting unveiled by the Mona Lisa Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland

But at their home in south London, Andrew and Karen Gilbert have a different story – they say they own a 25% share in the portrait.

When they contacted the Mona Lisa Foundation after it unveiled the portrait in 2012 they claimed the organisation said it “didn’t know anything about us, they weren’t the owners and just tried to bat us away as someone inconvenient”.

“Because we were unable to find out who the owner was, nobody was telling us anything, we didn’t know how we could launch any kind of proceedings,” Karen says.

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Gilbert Family

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Andrew and Karen Gilbert, from London, say they own a 25% share in the painting

This week has seen a dramatic development that the Gilberts believe may lead to a breakthrough in their claim.

But a claim in what? Is it possible for a near priceless Leonard da Vinci portrait to suddenly come to light?

The $450m painting

Incredibly, that’s exactly what happened with a painting called the Salvator Mundi – or Saviour of the World.

Sold for just £45 ($55) in 1958, it was bought at auction for an incredible $450m (£357m) by an anonymous buyer two years ago.

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Getty Images

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Auctioned at Christie’s, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is the world’s most expensive painting

The difference, of course, was down to the painting being authenticated by an international team of experts as a genuine Leonardo.

Could the painting dubbed the Earlier Mona Lisa by the foundation follow the same path?

‘Had to be a Leonardo’

“I was sceptical but intrigued,” Professor Jean-Pierre Isbouts says from Santa Monica, California – he was flown to Switzerland by the foundation to view the painting.

“I walked into the vault, it was very cold in there, and I spent about two hours with that painting. But after five minutes I recognised that this had to be a Leonardo.”

But it wasn’t just the appearance that made the academic from Fielding Graduate University in California (whose work is recommended by the foundation) believe the portrait was genuine – it was also the historical evidence, he says.

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Leonardo da Vinci pictured in Giorgio Vasari book “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters”

“Giorgio Vasari, the [16th Century] biographer of Leonardo, clearly states that Leonardo worked on the Mona Lisa for four years and then left it unfinished.”

This matches the appearance of the Earlier Mona Lisa, which has an incomplete background, unlike the famous portrait that hangs in the Louvre.

Professor Isbouts also points out that historical records mention Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa for two different clients, raising the possibility that he completed two separate portraits, one for each commission.

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Getty Images

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Histograms displaying colour similarities between the two paintings at the Mona Lisa Foundation presentation in Geneva, Switzerland

He adds that scientific tests appear to back up the claim the painting is genuine.

“With the Earlier Mona Lisa the science told us a) it is from the early 16th Century, b) it is definitely a composition by Leonardo because the configuration and the composition is identical to that of the Louvre Mona Lisa. And c) the histograms [digital graphs of the colours used] show that in terms of the ‘handwriting’ of the painting, how he applies the paint, [it] is exactly identical.”

But not everyone agrees.

“A bit of rubbish”

“It’s not the real article for a whole series of reasons,” Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at the University of Oxford, says.

“It really isn’t a serious runner to be by Leonardo himself.”

He thinks the reason Giorgio Vasari believed the Mona Lisa to be incomplete was because “Vasari’s information was all Florentine”, and the picture was probably completed after Leonardo had left the city of Florence.

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Getty Images

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The writer and painter Giorgio Vasari wrote about Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa in the 16th Century

And he disagrees that historical records suggest two Mona Lisa’s were painted.

Instead Professor Kemp says Leonardo probably never handed the portrait over to his original client, and a second person “might well have said if you finish that, I’ll take it off you, as it were”.

And the scientific evidence? Professor Kemp says the information offered by the Mona Lisa Foundation is only “permissive” and, while not ruling out the Earlier Mona Lisa from being by Leonardo, it certainly doesn’t prove that it is.

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Getty Images

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Professor Martin Kemp is one of the world’s leading authorities on Leonardo da Vinci

However, he adds “examination by infrared and other technical means, shows that it [the Louvre Mona Lisa] underwent an evolution, as all Leonardo’s pictures did.

“The infrared examination of the Isleworth Madonna [as Earlier Mona Lisa is also known] is just tediously exact and is clearly the kind of drawing that’s made when you’re copying something rather than generating it.”

Professor Isbouts, however, is critical of Professor Kemp’s analysis in part because “Martin has never seen the work, and that’s the beef that David and Joel [Feldman of the Mona Lisa Foundation] have, and I think it’s a legitimate beef.”

In response Professor Kemp replies: “The old canard that you always have to go and see it in the original, even if it is a bit of rubbish, is not sustainable, particularly with modern imaging techniques. And some of the high quality digital images, you can actually see more in them than you can see in the painting, even with a magnifying glass.”

Shifting evidence

The experts may disagree about the evidence, but has all the material been presented clearly?

The BBC has seen sections of a pre-production copy of a book – written by several contributors but edited by Professor Isbouts – about the Earlier Mona Lisa, called “Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: New Perspectives”.

One of the contributors claims that in the final, published, version of the book, sections of his text seem to have been removed. He claims many of the deleted passages appear to be ones that are not helpful to the theory that the Earlier Mona Lisa is by Leonardo.

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The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous artworks in the world

Professor Isbouts denied this: “I definitely edited some segments because I’m the editor. And in some cases there were passages that I don’t think were scholarly defensible. I was just trying to keep the thrust of the argument intact – I certainly didn’t remove anything of a contrarian nature. There were two chapters that were simply way too long.”

He later emailed the BBC, having contacted the contributor to see which passages he was concerned about, and said: “We are working on the final version of the book, in hardcover, so we can still make some corrections within the available word count.”

A Mona Lisa, but no money

One thing supporters of the theory that the Earlier Mona Lisa is by Leonardo da Vinci have to explain is where the painting came from.

It suddenly emerged in 1913, when Hugh Blaker bought it from a manor house in Somerset.

“Blaker believed he was on to something,” says Professor Robert Meyrick of Aberystwyth University who studies the life of the art dealer.

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Public Domain

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Hugh Blaker was an art dealer, critic, collector, museum curator and playwright

Despite successfully tracking down genuine paintings by artists such as Rubens, Velázquez, El Greco, Manet, Constable, and Turner, Blaker’s business dealings often went badly, and he never managed to sell his Mona Lisa.

“It was like a like a catalogue of failures really, despite his best efforts,” says Professor Meyrick, of the man who struggled financially in later life.

Following Blakers’ death, the painting ended up in the hands of an eccentric art dealer called Henry Pulitzer – he believed the Earlier Mona Lisa was actually more impressive than its more famous counterpart in the Louvre.

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Getty Images

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Henry Pulitzer holding a copy of a book he published about the painting called “Where is the Mona Lisa?”

But Pulitzer needed some help in trying to convince the world that they were both by Leonardo.

A helping hand

“He started running out of money to promote it, because he wanted to prove that it was a real Leonardo da Vinci,” Andrew Gilbert says.

His family knew Pulitzer, bought pictures from him, and sold him some too.

They have shown the BBC a series of documents which they say shows the family bought a 25% share of the painting in 1964. About a decade later Pulitzer locked the portrait in a Swiss bank vault, and following his death, it eventually ended up in the hands of the international consortium in 2008.

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Gilbert family

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The Gilbert family claim they own a 25% share in the painting

The Mona Lisa Foundation vehemently disagrees with the Gilberts’ claim, its president telling the press in July their case is “ill-founded and has no merit”.

But the family have pressed on and called in the “Sherlock Holmes” of the art world to help.

“Well, I guess I don’t mind it,” Christopher Marinello, CEO and founder of Art Recovery International, says about his nickname.

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AFP

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Christopher Marinello has helped recover art worth hundreds of millions of dollars

“We’ve recovered about $510m (£400m) worth of art over the years. We’re still heavily involved in some of the biggest cases going on right now in the art world, and we’re proud of that.”

But what does he think of the claim that the painting in this case might be by Leonardo da Vinci?

“I honestly don’t care about any of it,” he replies. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a simple matter of clients who have a contract of purchase for this painting, whatever it may be.”

It’s thanks to Mr Marinello that the Gilberts (who say they themselves are not sure if the portrait is a real Leonardo) began legal proceedings against the Mona Lisa Foundation in Italy while the painting was being exhibited in Florence.

The Caribbean connection

Ahead of this week’s court hearing, the Gilbert’s lawyer, Giovanni Protti, said this is the “most tricky and interesting case I’ve ever worked on”.

“We’ve had to service a writ of summons to a lot of countries all over the world.”

And that work has borne fruit. After a court hearing on Tuesday, Karen Gilbert says: “The Mona Lisa Foundation declared in front of the judge that Mona Lisa Inc in Anguilla was the owner of the painting.”

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Getty Images

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Anguilla is a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean

There is nothing to suggest such an arrangement implies any wrong-doing by the foundation or the international consortium, but the Caribbean island, which is a British Overseas Territory, is known for its discreet way of doing business.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Karen says. “We know therefore that we’re on the right track with the research that we’ve done.”

This doesn’t establish that the Gilbert family do own a share in the portrait, but it is the first time that the Mona Lisa Foundation have disclosed who the owner is.

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Getty Images

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The Louvre museum where the Mona Lisa hangs has 10 million visitors a year

In response to Tuesday’s hearing, the Mona Lisa Foundation’s lawyer, Marco Parducci, says: “The Mona Lisa Foundation can neither confirm nor deny the claim, by virtue of the legal obligations it has towards the owners, unless it is explicitly requested by the judicial authority.”

He adds that the Gilberts’ claims suggest they are motivated by “economic interest and the desire to damage the foundation” and the next hearing in March will show “that there is no case”.

Fame

The legal battle will roll on, but what would Leonardo, the great renaissance scholar, make of puzzles like the Earlier Mona Lisa and the myths that surround his work, 500 years after his death?

“Oh, he would be incredibly pleased,” laughs Professor Kemp. “He was interested in fame.

“He would have cringed at some of the nonsense, but the fact that his name is the best-known name in the history of culture? Yes, he’d be very pleased.”



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Jacqueline Jossa wins I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

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Jacqueline JossaImage copyright
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Former EastEnders star Jacqueline Jossa has won I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! after spending three weeks in the Australian jungle.

The actress was named queen of the jungle, following in the footsteps of previous winners like Harry Redknapp, Stacey Solomon and Kerry Katona.

Co-presenters Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly revealed the winner at the end of the final of the ITV reality show.

Actor Andy Whyment was the runner-up, with radio DJ Roman Kemp in third.

Jossa played Lauren Branning in BBC soap EastEnders between 2010 and 2018.

After she was named queen of the jungle, she said: “I have no words.”

This year’s series – the 19th – was the first not to have live insects eaten as part of the show’s “bushtucker trials”.

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PA Media

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Coronation Street actor Andy Whyment took part in a “bushtucker bonanza” before he came second

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ITV

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Radio host Roman Kemp came third

Any insects consumed on the show were already dead – though live creepy-crawlies were still dumped on its celebrity contestants.

But the show was not without controversy, with former sports stars James Haskell and Ian Wright being accused of bullying their fellow campmates.

Viewers also contacted media watchdog Ofcom to complain that some of the show’s challenges were too hard and thus unfair.

There was contention before the series even aired, with former Commons Speaker John Bercow demanding a newspaper apologise for claiming he had asked for £1m to appear.

DJ Tony Blackburn was the first celebrity to be crowned King of the Jungle when the show first aired in 2002.

Follow us on Facebook, or on Twitter @BBCNewsEnts. If you have a story suggestion email





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Juice Wrld: US rapper dies aged 21 ‘after seizure at airport’

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Juice Wrld, real name Jarad Anthony Higgins, was considered to be a rising star of rap musicImage copyright
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Juice Wrld, real name Jarad Anthony Higgins, was considered to be a rising star of rap music

Juice Wrld, a US rapper who shot to fame on music streaming platforms, has died at the age of 21.

Celebrity news website TMZ said he died after suffering a seizure at Chicago’s Midway airport on Sunday morning.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said the cause was unknown.

Juice Wrld, real name Jarad Anthony Higgins, was best-known for his viral 2018 hit Lucid Dreams. Mental health, mortality and drug use were common themes in his music.

Chicago police told the BBC a 21-year-old man suffered a medical emergency at around 02:00 local time (08:00 GMT) and was taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

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Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, told the Chicago Sun Times there were “no signs of foul play” and it was unclear whether drugs played a role in his death.

Who was Juice Wrld?

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1998, Juice Wrld started rapping in high school, using online music streaming platform SoundCloud to upload and promote his music.

He went on to release his debut full-length EP, 999, on the platform in 2017, garnering him attention from fellow Chicago-based artists such as G Herbo and Lil Bibby.

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Juice Wrld shot to fame in 2018, when hit single Lucid Dreams reached number two in the charts

The rapper rose to fame in 2018, when hit singles All Girls Are the Same and Lucid Dreams, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, drew the attention of music fans and record labels.

More plaudits followed the release first studio album, Goodbye & Good Riddance, in 2018, cementing his himself as one of the rising stars of US rap.

In early 2018, he was signed by Interscope Records, landing a record deal reported to be worth more than $3m (£2.2m). He topped the Billboard chart this year with his second album Death Race for Love.

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Juice Wrld celebrated his 21st birthday last week

In one of his songs, Juice Wrld rapped about the short lives of artists, saying “all the legends seem to die out”.

The song, titled Legends, was dedicated to two late rappers, 20-year-old XXXTentacion and 21-year-old Lil Peep, who died in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

In the song Juice Wrld rapped: “What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21. I been going through paranoia.”

Juice Wrld had celebrated his 21st birthday last week. In a tweet, he said it was “one of his best” birthdays yet.

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Media captionGrime artist Ransom FA spoke to the BBC about the challenges of breaking into the music industry

His music has been described as emo rap, a genre that draws influences from hip hop and alternative rock.

In a four-star review of his second album, music publication NME said the rapper “makes songs that stick, his vocal dissonance capturing what it feels like to be young and in pain, and feeling a sense of indifference towards authority figures”.

In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Juice Wrld opened up about his use of cannabis and Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication.

“I smoke weed, and every now and then I slip up and do something that’s poor judgment,” he told the paper.

Who has paid tribute?

In a tweet, British singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding, who collaborated with Juice Wrld on her 2019 single Hate Me, described the rapper as “such a sweet soul” who had “so much further to go”.

Chicago-based artist Chance the Rapper paid a heartfelt tribute on Instagram, writing: “Millions of people, not just in Chicago but around the world are hurting because of this and don’t know what to make of it.”

“Wow, I cannot believe this. Rip my brother juice world,” tweeted fellow rapper Lil Yachty.

US rapper Lil Nas X, also writing on Twitter, said it is “so sad how often this is happening lately to young talented rising artists”.

Hip hop artist HaHa Davis wrote on Twitter: “Heartbroken @JuiceWorlddd I love you bro.”





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Star Wars: The Leicestershire factory at the centre of a toy galaxy

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Tie fighterImage copyright
Bob Brechin

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Palitoy executives visited the United States to see the very first Star Wars toys

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, released on 19 December, is sure to set tills ringing just as loudly in toy shops as in cinemas. But the decades-spanning success of Star Wars toys owes much to the early hard work and vision of a group of British workers.

In 1977, Star Wars was still little more than a rumour. The first film in the franchise would not get its UK premiere until 27 December, seven months after it opened in the United States.

Among the first people to see previews of the movie were executives from Leicestershire firm Palitoy, tasked with rendering George Lucas’s celluloid galaxy in plastic.

Kenner, the company’s US sister firm, had bought the rights to Star Wars but needed a factory to manufacture the toys for the UK.

“I’d never heard of Star Wars, but they said ‘There’s a film. We can give you a quick look-see’,” said Bob Simpson, Palitoy’s managing director.

“I was amazed. It was just a toymaker’s dream.”

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The Star Wars range quickly became must-have toys

Mr Simpson was among the Palitoy employees tracked down for a new documentary that tells how its Coalville factory found itself at the centre of a manufacturing phenomenon.

But initially, with no guarantee that the first film would be a box office success, let alone spawn a smash-hit series, and with no actual toys or market data to show potential buyers, Palitoy had a tough job to convince retailers to invest.

“You have to remember, this was a film people weren’t sure about… they were reluctant to take stuff because it was what they thought was a B-movie – you know, science fiction, all that business,” said Bob Brechin, the firm’s chief designer.

Salvation came in the form of Action Man. Retailers were offered discounts on the firm’s hugely popular soldier figures if they would take Star Wars toys.

Sales manager John Nicholas recalled how one chain’s whisky-loving buyer was handed a bottle of Scotch and asked how many Star Wars figures he wanted.

About half an hour later, and with a third of the bottle gone, he had decided. He would take a million.

“Well, it was my biggest order ever. I’ve never taken an order for that, and, you know, when Woolworths came along and said, ‘All right, I’ll have 100,000’, it was ‘Oh, is that all?’.”

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Palitoy offered retailers discounts on Action Man if they would stock the new Star Wars range

As the first film became a hit with audiences, demand grew. An entire cast of figures, at pocket-money prices, and a selection of spaceships and vehicles, helped confirm Star Wars as the must-have toy, boosting Palitoy’s sales to £20m in 1978.

Production line worker Gina Morton remembers a supervisor called Wendy urging the workers on. “She was rather like a schoolmistress, actually because, we were young girls – 17, 18… You know, if your Millennium Falcons weren’t touching, ‘Come on girls, what’s going off here? We’ve got to get this out!'”

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Coalville Heritage Society

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Demand for the toys meant production line employees had to work quickly

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Coalville Heritage Society

By the time Return of the Jedi, the third movie, was released in 1983, 20 million Star Wars figures had been sold in the UK, and half of those in that year alone.

But with some parts of its empire posting losses, parent company General Mills, a food producer, was questioning its involvement in the traditionally volatile toy business.

The Palitoy brand was discontinued, production of Star Wars toys at Coalville ended, and in just under 10 years, the company was sold three times.

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Coalville Heritage Society

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The former Palitoy factory is now a business centre, but its history is marked with a green plaque

The factory closed in 1994. Its last owner was Hasbro, which still manufactures Star Wars toys today.

“Devastating” is how designer Brian Turner remembers the effect on the town, already reeling from the decline of coal-mining. “I think the life went out of the place,” he said.

Although they initially sold for a pound or two, original Star Wars figures can today fetch hundreds – even thousands – with Palitoy products, rarer than their US counterparts, particularly sought after by some collectors.

“I mean, I wish I’d put a few in the garage. I’ve always thought that,” said Bob Brechin.

Marketing manager Geoff Maisey said: “I think we’ve a lot to be proud of. We actually launched Star Wars and made it what it is.

“Other companies now have taken it and extended it. But without those efforts in the early days, it wouldn’t be here. So yeah, I’m really proud.”

Toy Empire: The British Force Behind Star Wars, will be shown on BBC 1 in the East Midlands on 9 December at 19:30 GMT, and then on BBC iPlayer. It will be shown on BBC Four on 16 December at 21:00 GMT.



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