by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor
Forty years ago, someone was plotting the largest art theft in Canadian history. The plan was to steal the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ masterpiece paintings over Labor Day Weekend. Although the thieves aborted the job and ended up taking fewer paintings, the three men who entered the museum on September 4, 1972, have never been arrested or imprisoned for this robbery.
In 1972, the art collection was housed in a three-story building that was already 60 years old. Workers had been on the roof repairing a skylight for weeks. The thieves may have been one of the people who had sat in chairs on the roof seeking relief from the sweltering August heat. They would have had the opportunity to watch the routines of the security guards, typically unarmed university students also charged with managing the parking and traffic around Canada’s oldest art institution.
Summers in Montreal are typically hot and humid and nearly empty. Residents traditionally retreat to the Laurentian Mountains or south of the Canadian border to escape the heat. On that weekend, the museum’s president of the board of trustees, its director, and security director had all fled to the United States and Mexico for their holidays leaving Bill Bantey, the museum’s director of public relations, the most senior museum official on duty that weekend.
Mr. Bantey, a political and criminal journalist who had also worked for two decades for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, was my mentor in 2009 when I traveled to Montreal to study this unsolved museum theft. I was not allowed to read the police files on this still-open case although I met twice with a semi-retired Montreal police officer, Alain Lacoursière, who told me what he recalled from his investigation and his recollection of the information in the files. Mr. Lacoursière appeared to have been the only one to investigate the case in recent years. Both Mr. Bantey and Mr. Lacoursière had appeared in a film, Le Colombo d’Art, which identified a suspect in the theft who refused to confess or release information as the whereabouts of the stolen paintings supposedly by Rembrandt, Jean Brueghel the Elder, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, Narcisse-Virgile de la Peña, Thomas Gainsborough, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Jean-François Millet, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peter Paul Rubens, and François-André Vincent.
The museum opened its archives to me and I spent days reading about the stolen paintings and jewels. Many articles had been written in the more than 35 years since the robbery on the theft, the attempted ransom, and speculation on the whereabouts of the missing 17 paintings. In separate conversations with me, both Mr. Bantey and Mr. Lacoursière believed that the paintings had not been destroyed and had probably been sent out of the country to a jurisdiction friendly to members of organized crime who spent Quebec’s cold winters in warmer southern climates.
On this anniversary I find myself wondering about the three thieves who climbed up onto the roof of a three-story building, opened up an unsecured skylight, and vaulted down ropes into the museum. At least one of the three carried a gun and shot off a round when the first guard hesitated to drop to the floor. Then the thieves tied up three guards and spent about one-half to an hour in the museum selecting 39 paintings, which also included works by El Greco, Picasso, Tintoretto, and a second Rembrandt. The thieves piled up the paintings and then one of them opened the door into the garage where they had planned to use a museum van to escape. However, the alarm to that door was engaged and frightened the thieves who did not know that the alarm was not hooked up to a source outside of the museum. The thieves panicked, grabbed the paintings they could, and supposedly escaped on foot out of the museum down Sherbrooke, a major east-west boulevard that transverses the city from some of the wealthiest residential neighborhoods passed McGill University and the École des beaux-arts.
I think about the three thieves running supposedly unseen down the street with more than $2 million worth of insured paintings. Was this their first theft? Did they steal again? Were they art students paid to rob the museum for an ‘art dealer’ who’s clients were willing to purchase stolen paintings?
In the 1966 art heist movie How to Steal a Million starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn, two thieves rendezvous in the bar at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the day after committing the robber: “We did it! Did you see the paper and the television? Did you hear the radio? It’s the crime of the century, practically, and we did it!”
Who wants the bragging rights to having robbed the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts more than four decades ago?
You may read more about Canada's largest art theft on my blog here.