The brazen theft of the gold toilet from Blenheim Palace made headlines around the world. But as disastrous as the heist has been for the palace and the Blenheim Art Foundation – or its insurance company – it has, at least, brought awareness of its eccentric creator to a wider audience.

Maurizio Cattelan is a conceptual artist with a reputation for mischief. His provocative art is designed to stimulate discussion and controversy and to shock.

No stranger to stunts of his own, many initially believed the artist was behind the ‘theft’ of the lavatory – the most famous piece in the show. He has robustly insisted that he was not, but fell short of condemning the thieves, describing them as artists in their own right.

The luxurious loo, titled ‘America’, was intended as a satirical statement on inequality. The exhibition guide says: “The work asks us to reflect on Blenheim Palace’s own identity as a place built on ideals of social hierarchy and wealth”.

Visitors to the palace were invited to book a three-minute slot to use the fully-functioning and plumbed in toilet, which was valued at $6m – about £4.8m.

But the piece has also been interpreted as an icon of democracy – allowing we commoners to enjoy the privilege of carrying out the most base of human functions on solid gold. When seen like that, its theft seems almost self-fulfilling.

If it is returned, it will have been a most impressive piece of publicity. If it has been melted down, that would be a tragedy – a triumph of ugly naked greed over art and a betrayal of the artist’s altruism, generosity of spirit and faith in humanity.

The show, as they say, must go on, however. And what a show! Even without its signature attraction, Cattelan’s exhibition, called, ominously, Victory is not an Option, is the most stimulating display so far staged by the Blenheim Art Foundation.

To those already aware of the artist’s work, it is a chance to see his most significant show in 20 years and to see that work installed in a way which chimes with its surroundings: Britain’s grandest stately home and a monument to military might, patriotism and victory – specifically over the French and Bavarians in 1704.

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With his irreverent and sometimes surreal installations, the Padua-born artist has set out to provoke a reaction – whether that be humour, delight, shock or revulsion. With a taxidermy horse and crocodile suspended in the State Rooms, a waxwork of Pope John Paull II struck down by a meteorite, homeless people and pigeons in the chapel and a giant rendition of Pinocchio lying face down in a fountain, the palace is transformed into a series of symbolic tableaux.

There are knowing winks too, with self portraits of the artist – one, stony faced and suspended by his clothing – as if he has hanged himself. Another, called Mini-Me, is hidden in the palace (see if you can find him), grinning at the tourists gawping at the treasures. It is almost as if the artist knows he doesn’t really belong here but having inveigled his way inside, is enjoying using it as a toy box.

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The largest piece is the first to confront visitors: a huge walkway of Union Flags arranged in a cross spanning the Great Court.

On the surface it appears an act of patriotic homage; a grand nationalist gesture. However, these flags are designed to be walked upon and less than a week into the show, they are already grubby, scuffed and marked by the soles of hundreds of shoes.

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At the launch, Edward Spencer-Churchill, brother to the Duke of Marlborough and the driving force behind the Art Foundation pointed out the marks already appearing and stressed no one would be wiping them off. He referred to his ancestor, Winston Churchill, who was born at the palace, and who had a deep mistrust of the Union Jack and its “flag planting” imperial connotations. He thought the wartime leader would have been amused.

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Whether he would have been quite as tickled by what greeted him in the Long Library is a different matter. Perched high on a wall at one end is a mechanical sculpture based on the hero of Gunter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum – which beats out a rhythm on a toy drum. In the story, the boy plays his drum when he is confronted with danger.

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The reason for his alarm becomes clear as one crosses the room. What, at first, appears to be a boy kneeling in prayer, back to the viewer, turns out to be, on closer inspection, a sculpture of the 20th century’s greatest monster: Adolf Hitler, begging forgiveness.

It’s a shocking sight – Churchill’s great enemy here in his birthplace. It speaks of repentance, memory and why some things should never be forgotten. The same can certainly be said for this show.

  • Maurizio Cattelan’s Victory is Not an Option is at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock until October 27.