Showing posts with label Alain Lacoursière. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alain Lacoursière. Show all posts

September 4, 2014

Canada's Largest Art Theft: The 42nd anniversary of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Gustave Courbet, French, 1819-77
Landscape with rocks and stream, 1873
Oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 36 1/8 inches
Lady Allan Bequest, 1958
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, 
 ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Today marks the 42nd anniversary of Canada's largest art theft, the unsolved 1972 burglary of the prestigious Montreal Museum of Fine Art. 

Readers may find an overview of the theft in last year's post on the ARCA blog. If you would like additional information, here's a blog dedicated to the art crime, including a list of the stolen paintings by Jan Breughel 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, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, and François-André Vincent. The thieves had selected twice as many more paintings -- what one witness guessed was an intention to clean out the collection -- but had dropped many when spooked into running away by a secondary alarm.

This theft, first brought to my attention in Ulrich Boser's book "The Gardner Theft" -- about the infamous unsolved 1990 Boston case -- had been widely publicized hours after the theft by Bill Bantey, an experienced journalist who was then serving as the museum's director of public relations. In 2009, when I wrote about the Montreal theft for a paper for ARCA (under the supervision of Anthony Amore), Boser directed me to the retired Bantey who was endlessly patient with my questions, my theories, and my attempts to understand the relevance of the theft. Bill Bantey read my 20,000 word report, leaving his comments in the margins -- either his opinions or corrections on grammar -- and when I was in Montreal cooked a five-course meal for his wife and I. Both Bill and his wife Judy have since passed away so it is on this anniversary that I mourn the death of a generous and fascinating couple as I hope that the paintings will someday become available again to the public -- from wherever they have been hidden -- whether in a nearby Montreal neighborhood or a Central American country.

Retired Montreal police officer Alain Lacoursière investigated the case decades after the theft. Three years ago Lacoursière received a video from his prime suspect, the one depicted in the book (biography) and film, L'Colombe de l'art. Otherwise, no other information has been made public.

August 27, 2012

"Q&A on Art Crime in Canada" in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime

Editor-in-Chief Noah Charney features "Q&A on Art Crime in Canada" in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime. You may read the rest of this interview in The Journal of Art Crime by subscribing through ARCA's website.
In 2008 the Sureté du Quebec, in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, established the first national art crime investigation team in Canada’s history. The four-man team is now led by Jean-Francois Talbot, who has worked since 2003 with Alain Lacoursiere, an art historian and retired member of the Montreal police. Lacoursiere, who has been nominated for an ARCA Award, helped in the development of an art crime team in Canada and a system called Art Alert, which is an email bulletin sent out to 25,000 subscribers in 75 countries, largely members of the art community and police departments. Between 2004 and 2008, a combined force of agents from the Sureté du Quebec and the Montreal police department investigated around 450 art crimes, made 20 arrests, and seized over 150 stolen or forged artworks, with a total estimated value of around $2 million. The newly-established art crime team handles an average of 90 art crime cases per year. ARCA interviewed the art crime team, including Alain Dumouchel, to learn a bit more about art crime and investigation in Canada.

May 4, 2012

BOOK REVIEW CONCLUDED: Joshua Knelman's Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

(You may find the first two parts here and here)

In London, Julian Radcliffe, founder of the Art Loss Register, a private company originally funded by auction houses and insurers to create a database of stolen art, tells Knelman of his effort to establish a stolen art database for art dealers and auction houses.  The company also reported over $200 million in art theft recoveries by 2008, including recoveries of paintings by Cézanne, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso.

“Famous paintings are just a small percentage of what is being stolen,” Radcliffe told Knelman, [adding that] most of the art on the ALR list consists of minor paintings and antiques, and fewer than 1 per cent of those are ever recovered.

Radcliffe explains that art dealers often didn’t question why they could purchase a painting cheaply.  Sometimes if art dealers found out the art was reported stolen on ALR, they would not buy the work but refer it to someone else.  Even art thieves like to search the database to see if a painting has been reported stolen.

In the over 1,000 recoveries Radcliffe has enjoyed, in only three cases was the thief not after the paycheck for the stolen art, and most of the art that wasn’t immediately passed on to a dealer or auction house was stored in a vault, a closet, an attic, or a basement.
“Transactions in the art world are often carried out anonymously … and this cult of secrecy can be taken advantage of by criminals,” said Radcliffe.  “The art trade is the least regulated and least transparent activity in the commercial world, and the portability of the times and their international market make them very attractive for moving value, unobserved.”
Radcliffe said that the average value of stolen art is under $10,000 and that thieves will pass these items off to fences, who will then move them into the outlands of the art market: to small auction houses or galleries, or across oceans…. About half of all stolen art recovered by the ALR was found in a different country from where it was originally stolen. 

In the United States, Knelmen meets Special Agent Robert K. Wittman, then a Senior Art Investigator for the Rapid Deployment Art Crime Team for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Wittman was six months away from retirement.  The 1996 law, The Theft of Major Artwork had made it a federal crime to steal from a museum or to steal a work of art worth more than $5,000 or older than 100 years.  Knelman tells how Wittman recovered a Norman Rockwell painting in Brazil just three months after helping with the recovery effort after the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Knelman meets Matthew Bogdanos who had lived one block from the WTC on 9/11.  The assistant U. S. district attorney, a Marine reservist, led the art theft investigation of the National Museum of Iraq after looting in 2003, and established an amnesty program to recover the stolen antiquities.

In the fall of 2009, Knelman meets Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Art Crime Team which had reorganized in response to the looting of the Iraqi museum.  Magness-Gardiner echoes what Knelman heard in his first meeting with an art thief in Toronto six years earlier about an unregulated and undocumented art market based on secretive transactions involving millions of dollars.

I asked Magness-Gardiner if it was fair to say that no one had a handle on how large the black market in stolen art had become.  “Yes, that’s fair to say,” she answered....  “When we say ‘black market,’ really what we mean are those stolen items that are in the legitimate market and shouldn’t be there.  The black market isn’t separate.  So we’re talking about items that have no history.  The collectors, the museums, and the dealers all partake on some level.”

Magness-Gardiner explains:
“Art is one of the biggest unregulated markets in the U. S.  The business of art tends to be very closed and secretive.  It is still business done on a handshake.  Financial transactions are quite difficult to track, because you don’t have a paper trail.  How art is bought, sold, and moved is a challenge in itself to understand.  When a piece of art is bought or sold, there is the movement of the physical object from one location to another.  There is also the transfer of money from one bank account to another.  There is nothing to link those two events.”
Magness-Gardiner addressed the lack of information about the collecting history or previous ownership of an object of art or cultural property:
“Another problem built into a business-on-a-handshake model is the issue of provenance.  The first thing we tell a new agent to do is to find out whether or not the work of art that has been stolen is, in fact, real.  Where does it come from? Where are its records? We don’t know until we do a background investigation on the piece of art.”  She continued, “Looking at the authenticity of a piece is always detective work.  Unlike most other material items manufactured today, art does not have serial numbers.  Lack of a serial number is one element that really distinguishes art from other types of property theft.  The only parallel is jewellery and gems – difficult to trace because they don’t have a serial number either, and so they are particularly valuable to thieves,” she said. 

“The middlemen and the dealers don’t want other people to know their sources.  This can stem from a legitimate business concern, because if other dealers find out who their sources are, they could use those same sources.”
Knelman dedicates a chapter to the art crime investigator, Alain Lacoursière, who had worked on art thefts as part of his police job until he retired. When Knelman met the new generation of the  Quebec Art Squad they didn’t know of the work of the LAPD Art Theft Detail until Knelman told the French-speaking detectives of Hrycyk’s work.

In Hot Art, Knelman successfully brings a personal narrative navigating the disparate international world of art theft and recovery that almost unknowingly tell of the same story of theft and laundering stolen art through the legitimate market and the limited resources to combat the problem.  From England’s first art investigative team, the Sussex Police’s art and antiques squad, in 1965 to information flourishing on the internet through blogs such as Art Hostage (written by the former  Brighton Knocker Paul "Turbo" Hendry), and information dispersed by Interpol, the LAPD’S Art Theft Detail, Quebec’s Art Crime Squad, and the Museum Security Network, who in the English-speaking world will be the next law enforcement officers to continue the work of its pioneers?

May 2, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Joshua Knelman's Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Interpol and UNESCO listed art theft as the fourth-largest black market in the world (after drugs, money-laundering, and weapons).  But what did that mean? After I’d been following [Bonnie] Czegledi’s career for several years, one point was clear: don't look at the Hollywood versions of an art thief -- the Myth.  This is a bigger game, with more players, and the legitimate business of art is directly implicated.  A lot of the crimes are hidden in the open.  Stealing art is just the beginning.  Then the art is laundered up into the legitimate market, into private collections, into the world's most renowned museums.
 -- Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art

Toronto journalist Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art (Tin House Books, 2012), introduces to the general reader the international problem of art crime and the limited resources of legal authorities in fighting this problem in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2003, Knelman was just a 26-year-old researcher for the Canadian magazine Walrus when he stumbled down the rabbit hole of art theft and recovery.  A gallery owner hesitant to speak about the theft of $250,000 worth of photographs stolen two years earlier opens up to Knelman after police recover part of the stolen artwork.  Knelman eventually contacts the suspect’s lawyer, and that leads to a midnight phone call from the thief who has been investigating Knelman. The two meet in a café in Toronto.  The aspiring reporter is physically threatened, given stolen art, and then lectured by the thief about how the secretive business practices in the legitimate art market actually supports art crime.  Thus begins Knelman’s adventures through the world of thieves and investigators of looted art.

The journalist befriends Bonnie Czegledi, a Toronto attorney specializing in art crime, who educates Knelman about the types of stolen art and cultural property: missing Holocaust-looted artworks; pillaging of antiquities from source countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan, and Turkey; multi-million dollar thefts from museums worldwide; and unreported thefts from galleries and residences.  Knelman writes:
The world’s cultural heritage had become one big department store, and thieves of all kinds, at all levels, were shoplifting with impunity, as if the one security guard on duty was out on a smoke break.
Stolen art can be laundered through auction houses and art dealers; police aren’t trained to investigate art theft; and lawyers aren’t trained to prosecute them.  “Meanwhile, the criminal network is international, sophisticated and organized,” Czegledi says.

Ten years ago when Knelman first met Czegledi, tools to recover stolen art included Interpol’s stolen art database; the International Council of Museum’s guidelines for the buying practices of museums; the International Foundation for Art Research; and the Art Loss Register.

For example, Knelman relates that a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum was offered the chance to buy some Iraqi antiquities (the institution declined).  This was after the National Museum of Iraq was looted in 2003 and about 25 years after Canada had signed the 1970 Convention barring importing stolen artwork across international borders.

Knelman points out that only a handful of detectives worldwide have the expertise and training to investigate art thefts – from the pairs of police officers located in Montreal and Los Angeles to the larger European squads in England and Italy.

In 2005, Knelman’s published an article in The Walrus, “Artful Crimes” which highlights art crime in Canada against an increasingly global and transnational problem.  But he wasn’t done with the story.  Two years later, Knelman paid his own way to join cultural attorney Czegledi at the International Ccouncil of Museum’s conference in Cairo.  American prosecutor Rick St. Hilaire guides him through Egyptian history of ancient art crimes and summarizes the problem of smuggling of antiquities today which Knelman smartly summarizes in his book.  Knelman also meets Alain Lacoursière, the police officer that initiated the study of art crime in Quebec, while dodging an Egyptian conference organizer who demands the journalist pay a higher rate on his hotel room – Knelman sleeps on the floor in another room to avoid paying the organizer his cut.

By 2008, Knelman has a contract to write an investigative book on the mysterious and increasingly violent black market for stolen art.  He goes online to find an art thief interviewed by the magazine Foreign Policy.  He tracks down Paul Hendry, a Brighton knocker who graduated to handling millions of dollars in stolen paintings and antiques.  “We struck up what turned out to be a three-year conversation,” Knelman writes.  “We started to talk once, twice, sometimes three times a week.”

“It was easy to make a living from stealing art, according to Paul, if a thief made intelligent choices, if he stayed below a certain value mark – about $100,000.  Less was better.  Don’t steal a van Gogh.  To someone who knew how to work the system, the legitimate business of fine art became a giant laundry machine for stolen art.  You could steal a piece and sell it back into the system without anyone being the wiser.”
“It’s called ‘pass the hot potato,’” Paul told me.  “A dealer sells it on to the next dealer, and the next, until nobody knows where it came from.  It’s a fantastic system!  And that system is the same wherever you are.  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about London, New York or New Delhi,” he explained.  “Art is something you have to think about as a commodity that goes round in circles.  The only time it appears in the open is when someone tries to filter it into the legitimate art market – auctions, art fairs, gallery sales, dealers.  Otherwise it’s hidden away inside someone’s home.”

Hendry grew up in Brighton and learned his outlaw trade as a “Knocker” who talked elderly residents out of their art and antiques.  Since 1965 Sussex Police had been responding to a high number of residential burglaries and created England’s first Art and Antiques Squad that operated until 1989.

According to Paul, in the 1960s Brighton closed down a large open-air market and built a huge shopping mall, Churchill Square.  Produce vendors started going door to door, which created opportunities to buy “good junk.”  They became known as “knockers”.

Knockers sold “junk” to antique dealers at a price higher than they had paid for it.  Knocking turned into a devious game that allowed thieves to peek at the inventory inside the houses of the upper middle class.’

Hendry tells Knelman of his poor and chaotic childhood, his training on the streets of crime, and how he hires local men from the neighborhood bar to break into homes and steal family treasures that Hendry can then sell.

The second part of this book review continues tomorrow.

March 14, 2012

Joshua Knelman Launching "Hot Art" at The Flag Art Foundation in New York on March 22

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

"Interpol and UNESCO listed art theft as the fourth-largest black market in the world (after drugs, money-laundering, and weapons).  But what did that mean? ... one point was clear: don't look at the Hollywood versions of art theft -- the Myth.  This is a bigger game, with more players, and the legitimate business of art is directly implicated.  A lot of the crimes are hidden in the open.  Stealing art is just the beginning.  Then the art is laundered up into the legitimate market, into private collections, into the world's most renowned museums." -- excerpt from Joshua Knelman's Hot Art

Toronto journalist Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detective Through the Secret World of Stolen Art (Tin House Books, 2012), will launch the American Trade Paper version of his  book from 6 to 8 p.m. on March 22 at The Flag Art Foundation in New York.

Knelman’s four year investigation of stolen art began with a local story about a burglary at a gallery in Toronto and ended with an international perspective. His nonfiction book begins in Hollywood in 2008 with the Art Theft Detail of the Los Angeles Police Department in a ride along with Detectives Don Hrycyk and Stephanie Lazarus who are investigating the robbery of an antiques store on La Cienega Boulevard.  Knelman immediately contrasts the meticulous and steady work of the police (he describes Hrycyk working art theft cases "with the patience of a scientist") with the images of glamorous heist movies such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).

In the first two chapters ("Hollywood" and "Law and Disorder") he links organized crime with art theft: the Los Angeles District Attorney's office had identified an Armenian gang for the antique-store job on La Cienega. In the second chapter, Knelman describes his coverage for The Walrus, a Canadian magazine, on a burglary at a small art gallery in 2003 and how the thief threatened him, tried to hand over stolen property to him, and then tries to educate him "about how art theft worked as an industry" as a way of distracting Knelman for the thief's own crimes:
He discussed how poor the security systems were at most of the major cultural institutions and of course at mid-sized and smaller galleries.  That made his job easier.  So there was that angle -- art galleries and museums weren't adequately protecting themselves against pros like him. 
Then he veered in another direction. 
"Okay, this is how it works," he said.  "It's like a big shell game.  All the antique and art dealers, they just pass it around from one to another."  He moved his fingers around the table in circles and then looked up.  "Do you understand?" He looked very intense, as if he had just handed me a top-secret piece of information, but I had no idea what he meant.  What did art dealers have to do with stealing art?  But our meeting was over.
Knelman published an article in The Walrus in 2005, "Artful Crimes", about international art theft.

In his book, Hot Art, Knelman meets cultural property attorney Bonnie Czegledi (author of Crimes Against Art: International Art and Cultural Heritage Law (Carswell, 2010) who introduces him to the roles of Interpol; the International Council of Museums; the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) and the Art Loss Register.  Knelman traveled with Czegledi to an International Council of Museums conference in Cairo, at his own expense, getting shaken down by a conference organizer for additional hotel fees above and beyond what he had agreed to pay the hotel manager.  Knelman meets Canadian police officer Alain Lacoursière and speaker Rick St. Hilaire, then a county prosecutor in New Hampshire who lectured on the impact of art theft in the United States and "knew a lot about the impact of art theft on Egypt." He visits the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with St. Hilaire and provides a great history of the collection and Napoleon's visit in the 19th century.

Knelman provides a personal account, both thrilling and dangerous, and admirable.  The book contains primary information for research into the black market of art, including a few chapters with an art thief, Paul Hendry, in England.

The book also provides a detailed profile of Don Hrycyk at the LAPD and the history of the Art Theft Detail, beginning with the work of Detective Bill Martin and includes information about Hryck's investigation of a residential art robbery in Encino in 2008; other cases ("his work was the most detailed example I found of a North American city interacting with the global black market"); a tour of the evidence warehouse which included fake art that had been the subject of a string operation into a Dr. Vilas Likhite; and an anecdote of an attempted theft at an unnamed major museum under renovation in Los Angeles.  In 2008, Knelman also interviewed artist June Wayne, founder of Tamarind Lithography Workshop (now the Tamarind Institute), who had a tapestry stolen in 1975; Leslie Sacks, owner of Leslie Sacks Fine Art in Brentwood, who discusses security measures and two burglaries; and Bob Combs, director of security at The Getty Center.

Both Hrycyk and Czegledi reference art historian Laurie Adams' book, Art Cop, about New York Police Detective Robert Volpe, the first detective in North America to investigate art theft full-time (1971 to 1983) after his role as a undercover narcotics cop in the late 1960s in a famous case memorialized in the film The French Connection about a ring of heroin dealers importing the drug from France.

Knelman also interviewed Giles Waterfield, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London when a Rembrandt was stolen in 1981; Richard Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad; and Robert K. Wittman, the first FBI agent to investigate art theft full-time, when Wittman was six months away from retirement; and Bonnie Magness-Gardiner from the Art Crime Team at the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Alain Lacoursière, Montreal police officer investigating art crimes in Quebec, including the unsolved 1972 robbery of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The book features the anonymous blogger Art Hostage (Paul Hendry) that turns out to be Knelman's source on art theft; Jonathan Sazonoff and his website The World's Most Wanted Art; and Ton Cremers and The Museum Security Network (MSN).

Joshua Knelman will also be speaking at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20, at Book Soup in Los Angeles.

October 28, 2011

Sûreté du Québec Police's Art Crime Enforcement Unit reports three paintings by Marc-Auréle Fortin and one painting by Rolland Montpetit have been stolen

Painting by Fortin reported stolen
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Sûreté du Québec Police's Art Crime Enforcement Unit used it's internationally distributed Art Alert email program to notify the art world and law enforcement that four paintings have been stolen. The Art Alert system, designed by retired officer Alain Lacoursière and the current head of the team, Jean-François Talbot, sends out an image of the artwork and known details such as the name of the artist; title of the work; year created; medium; dimension; and any other known details.

Interested parties may subscribe at

The ARCA blog has previously covered the activities of Canada's only art crime enforcement team here.

Painting by Marc-Aurèle Fortin reported stolen
Quebec landscape painter Marc-Aurele Fortin produced three of the paintings. Fortin (1888-1970), beset by diabetes, stopped most of his painting in 1955 and entrusted thousands of works to his manager yet many of his paintings are thought to have been lost. Fortin's artworks can be seen in the Musée des beaux arts Montréal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and at the National Gallery of Canada.

Painting by Rolland Montpetit reported stolen
Rolland Montpetit (Canadian, born 1913) produced the fourth painting reported stolen today on Art Alert.

The police do not release any other information about the paintings on Art Alert.

If you are interested in reading about Canada's largest art theft, you may find more information here.

Update: A fifth email from Art Alert reports that another painting, one by Pfeiffer, was stolen at the same time.

Painting by Pfeiffer also reported stolen

October 16, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2011: Q&A with the Québec Art Crime Team

Québec Art Crime Team
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief Catherine Schofield Sezgin interviews the Québec Art Crime Team in the Spring 2011 issue of The Journal of Art Crime. In 2008, the Sûreté du Québec, in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, created Canada's first national art crime enforcement unit now consisting of Jean-François Talbot and Sergeant Alain Dumouchel (both of the Sûreté du Québec) and Sylvia Dubuc, RCMP, and Sergent Superviseur Alain Gaulin (Sûreté du Québec).

Beginning in 2003, Jean-François Talbot worked for four years with Alain Lacoursière, an art historian and now-retired Montreal police officer, to develop a new investigative art crime team and Art Alert, an email bulletin sent out to 25,000 members of the art and police communities in 75 countries whenever artworks in Canada are reported stolen.

The team was interviewed in French. In acknowledgement of the international issue of art crime, the interview is presented in both French and in English translation.

A copy of this issue of The Journal of Art Crime may be found through the ARCA website or through

May 27, 2011

Part Two: Alain Lacoursière's Biographer Sylvain Larocque Writes about the Unsolved 1972 Theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Museum image of Courbet landscape stolen
 from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972.
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
ARCA Blog Editor-in-chief

In the sixth chapter entitled “Le vol du musée des beaux-arts” (“The theft of the Museum Fine Arts”) in his biography of retired art police officer, Alain Lacoursière: Le Colombo de l’art, journalist Sylvain Larocque speculates about the fate of the 17 stolen paintings from the 1972 theft in Montreal.

Larocque echoes what Lacoursière told me in November 2009, that some people believe that the thieves were unable to sell the works and afraid of being caught, destroyed the evidence by throwing the paintings into the St. Lawrence River. However, Larocque writes, that is hard to image as the paintings could be worth $50 million today and few instances of thieves destroying the art has been known to have happened. Larocque writes that most experts expect that the paintings will reappear some day. Lacoursière has said to both Larocque and I that he believes that the paintings are still in the hands of the people who planned or sponsored the theft and that they are aware that due to the notoriety of the theft cannot sell the paintings in the legitimate market. Possibly, Larocque writes, the heirs to those paintings will donate the works back to the museum.

Larocque writes that governments could help solve the crime by granting immunity to anyone who would be able to recover one or more of the paintings stolen in 1972. While such an offer would preclude punishment of the perpetrators of the burglar, Larocque writes, is that really a concern almost four decades later? Even if the criminals were convicted, there is no guarantee that the paintings would be returned, Larocque writes.

According to Larocque, the Civil Code in Quebec says that after three years a buyer who acquired a painting in good faith may keep the stolen work. Only works from the National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec, the Museum of Civilization and the Musé d’art contemporain de Montréal are exempt since those are national museums.

In 1989, when Alain Lacoursière was finishing his degree in art history, according to his biographer, he proposed to that the Government of Quebec duplicate the policies of France and Italy that would require anyone who acquired an artwork, whether in good faith or bad, would be forced to return the object to its rightful owner, regardless of how long it has been. ‘Aprés tout, personne ne peut contester que ces oeuvres appartiennent au patrimoine’/’After ll, no one can deny that these works belong to the collective heritage,’ Larocque writes.

Yet, Lacoursière’s proposal was not well received and he abandoned the idea in 2002.

Larocque retells the story of the 1990 theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, then tells readers that some stolen artworks have been recovered 50 to 80 years after their disappearance.

Then Larocque tells the story of the May 2, 1965 theft of what is now the National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham. Around 9 p.m. two guards on duty settled in the boiler room to watch an episode of the television series Perry Mason. A bell rang at the door. One guard went to see what was happening and saw a hand holding out a card on which he could read the name of a museum curator. He opened the door and saw a masked man who pushed him back inside. Two other assailants burst in and the trio tied up the two guards, evening though one of them had been a professional wrestler. The thieves escaped with 28 paintings worth $800,000, including works by Pierre-August Renoir, Krieghoff, Suzor-Coté, Horatio Walker and Frederick Simpson Coburn. Most of the paintings had been in the collection of the former Premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis, who had been in office in the 1930s and from 1944 to 1959. Four years later, the wife of Eric Kierans, a native of Montreal and a member of Canada’s House of Commons, contacted the police because a stranger had tried to sell to the couple a few of the paintings that had belonged to Duplessis.

According to Larocque, the theft of the paintings from the Duplessis collection had been committed to finance the Christian Nationalist Party that advocated “the sovereignty of the French-Canadian Catholics” and demanded the departure of Jews from Quebec. The 28 stolen paintings were found in a large bin at the home of one of the thieves, Leo Tremblay, who was found guilty of receiving stolen goods, a verdict that would be appealed two yeas later.

You may read more about Canada's largest art theft on the blog "Unsolved '72 Theft of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts."

May 26, 2011

Part One: Alain Lacoursière's biographer Sylvain Larocque Dedicates Sixth Chapter to The Theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Alain Lacoursière, Photo by Robert Skinner, Archives La Presse
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Sylvain Larocque, an economic journalist with La Presse Canadienne, wrote a book about my favorite retired Quebec art cop: Alain Lacoursière: “le Columbo de l’art” (Flammarion Quebec, 2010). His sixth chapter is titled “Le vol du Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal” (The theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).

With patience, I used Google Translate to read the chapter as I have written on the 1972 unsolved theft (to be published in the upcoming Journal of Art Crime).

Three burglars entered through the unsecured skylight of the Montreal museum on Labor Day in 1972 and selected 35 paintings to steal. However, when one of the thieves inadvertently tripped a security alarm in the garage housing the museum's van that they planned to use as their getaway car, the three men grabbed only 18 of the paintings and ran down out of the museum and down Sherbrooke Street in the early morning hours. Sherbrooke Street is a main east-west thoroughfare that stretches through metropolitan Montreal in some of the most exclusive real estate so I have always found this an amazing sight to picture as three thieves carry $2 million worth of paintings by Rembrandt, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Peter Paul Rubens, Honoré Daumier, Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Jean Bruegel the Elder, Eugene Delacroix, Thomas Gainsborough, and Jean-François Millet.

According to Larocque, the fleeing thieves fled on foot presumably to join a car parked nearby although no witnesses, according to journalists reporting at the time, commented on any such reports. It does not make that assumption incorrect, only that it could be speculation. The newspapers at the time did not write about how the thieves might have left the scene. The police records are not available to the public.

A few weeks after the theft, the museum received a request for $500,000 and a polaroid of all the stolen art before lowering the ransom to $250,000. Subsequently, one painting was returned and another negotiated ransom failed, ending all contact with the thieves. The insurance companies paid almost $2 million in restitution to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. With those proceeds, in 1975 the museum purchased what they hoped would be the largest Rubens to be held in a Canadian collection, The Leopards. However, in the 1990s, Marie-Claude Corbeil of the Canadian Conservation Institute established that The Leopards was a copy. According to Larocque, Corbeil's analysis revealed that the red pigments found in the painting were invented in 1687, almost four decades after the death of Rubens. The museum now attributes this work to the Studio of Peter Paul Rubens.

In subsequent years, Larocque writes, a $10,000 paid reward in 1973 failed to produce the paintings; an FBI tip that the works were possibly in South America resulted in no recoveries; and in 1982 an offered reward of $250,000 was also unsuccessful.

Lacoursière, then a police officer in Montreal, decided in 1984 to review the file on the museum theft which he requested from the department's archives where the file had languished for years. "In fact," Larocque writes and I translate, "the documents were not far from the shredder./En fait, les documents n'étaient pas loin de la deechiqueteuse."

Five years later, Larocque writes, Lacoursière was contacted by an officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who told him that a drug addict said that the paintings were buried in the backyard of the residence of a lawyer but the lead was useless as the would-be informant could not say precisely where the lawyer lived.

In 2002, Larocque writes, Lacoursière attended an opening at the Maison de la culture Frontenac in Montreal East and met an art collector and manufacturer of wooden boxes from a community located about one-hour's drive by automobile outside of Montreal. Larocque does name the man, the community and the municipality, however, when I was writing my article on the museum theft, Alain Lacoursière asked that I not reveal the man's identity.  I do not know about the agreement between Larocque and Lacoursière for the book, however, I shall honor the original agreement with Lacoursière until he notifies me otherwise.  In addition, the man has not to my knowledge been arrested or officially questioned in connection with the museum theft.  In the biography, Larocque writes:
L'homme aborda de son propre gré le vol de 1972 en racontant qu'il fréquentait l'UQAM au même moment et que les étudiants d l'institution se faisaient régulièrement expulser du Musée des beaux-arts./The man brought up the subject of the 1972 theft on his own and said that he had frequented the UQAM (the Université du Québec à Montréal) at the same time and the students of the institution were regularly expelled from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Lacoursière told me in November 2009 that the reason the art students were regularly expelled from the art gallery was that the staff kicked them out to enjoy their afternoon tea.

According to Larocque (and what Lacoursière told me two years ago), Lacoursière was intrigued by his encounter with "Smith" because he knew that after the theft that the police had followed and photographed student from UQAM (I was given the institutional name of École des beaux-arts) in connection with its investigation. He then led "Smith" to believe that approaching the 30th anniversary of the theft that there might be a million dollar reward to anyone who could provide information to retrieve the stolen paintings.

In 2003, Larocque writes, Lacoursière, a Detective Sergeant with the Montreal police, went to visit "Smith" at his home. Although "Smith" gave him a tour of his studio and his property, he did not say anything more about the museum theft.

Over the years, Larocque writes, Lacoursière kept in contact with "Smith" 'juste au cas' (just in case) and in 2007, while filming a documentary, le Colombo de l'art, Lacoursière filmed a visit to "Smith's" home and this time offered a "two million dollar" check as a reward for information leading to the recovery of the paintings but with the camera filming, "Smith" remained silent and did not react. "Smith" denied that he had even been watched or questioned by the police investigating the museum theft in 1972. Larocque writes:

À l'été 2010, au cours d'un entretien téléphonique, [Smith] a toutefois réfuté avoir joué quelque rôle que ce soit dans l'affaire du Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. Selon lui, le vol a été perpétré par des employés de l'UQAM, possiblement des professeurs et des appariteurs qui avaient été soupçonnés d'avoir effectué un important cambriolage à l'université, quelques semaines auparavant./In the summer of 2010, during a telephone interview, [Smith], however denied having played any role whatsoever in the case of the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. He said the theft was perpetrated by employees of UQAM, possibly professors and porters who were suspected of having carried out a major robbery at the university, a few weeks previously.

You may read about this book here and more about the 1972 unsolved theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on my blog here.

May 20, 2011

Part Two: Alain Lacoursière, the Mercedes-Benz Commercial Video, and Madonna and the Yarnwinder

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Recently Alain Lacoursière’s favorite suspect for the unsolved 1972 theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts sent the retired police officer a link to a Mercedes-Benz commercial video that fictionalizes the theft of a brief case from a bank vault. At the end of a high speed chase involving a very sleek German sedan, the brief case is delivered to a third party who later open to show that the contents of the brief case is a painting. The newscaster in the video reports under the headline: “Stolen Da Vinci Re-Emerges”:
The Paris National Art Collection was handed over a long-lost masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci today. The Da Vinci piece was being hidden for years by backers of the mafia in a safe deposit box. The FBI estimates the value of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder at approximately 70 million euros.
“The Madonna of the Yarnwinder is the subject of several oil paintings after a lost original by Leonardo da Vinci “(

The Lansdowne Madonna
A copy of this painting, known as The Lansdowne Madonna, by the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci is in a private collection in New York. It was likely completed by another artist in da Vinci’s studio after another painting of the same subject. (Universal Leonardo)

Another version of this painting, The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (Duke of Buccleuch), and considered to have been painted under Leonardo, was stolen from the Duke of Buccleuch’s home in Scotland in 2003. Two men posing as tourists during a public tour of Drumlanrig Castle overpowered a female staff member and carried the painting out the window. The painting was valued at 30 million pounds.

Madonna with Yarnwinder
 (Duke of Buccleuch)
The painting was recovered four years later – but a month after the death of the 84-year-old Duke -- when police raided a meeting at a respectable law office in Glasgow who claimed to be an innocent third-party. The solicitors were eventually cleared of extortion. The painting is reportedly on display at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh however the website for the institution does not show the painting in either its permanent collection or as a loan.

The original is lost, but how do the experts describe these two ‘copies’? I found an interesting source here. Martin Kemp wrote about the paintings in 1992 (Leonardo da Vinci and the Mystery of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (exhibition catalogue, Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland):
How much of the Buccleuch copy was painted by Leonardo was a matter of scholarly debate until recently. Scientific studies indicate that in addition to the work's underdrawing (with its pentimenti or small changes), the genius was most likely responsible for its overall design, the figures and the skillfully rendered rocky foreground. The landscape is uncharacteristic of Leonardo; it was probably painted a bit later by another artist, perhaps a workshop assistant. The flesh tones of Mary's face were executed using Leonardo's typical sfumato or smoky technique. A second brighter copy of The Madonna of the Yarnwinder belongs to a private collector.

May 19, 2011

Part One: Suspected art thief uses the Internet to tease retired art crime investigator Alain Lacoursière about the location of the paintings stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972

Rembrandt's Evening Landscape stolen
 from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Alain Lacoursière, retired art crime police officer in Montreal, recently received a link to a video from a suspect involved in the 1972 theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts that Lacoursière has perused for more than a decade./Alain Lacoursière, sergent détective responsable des crimes relatifs aux oeuvres d’art à Montréal, a récemment reçu un lien vers une vidéo produite par Mercedes Benz qui semble fermer les yeux sur un vol de banque. La vidéo a été envoyée par un suspect du vol de1972 au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal que Lacoursière a pourchassé pendant plus d'un décennie.

The video, an advertisement for Mercedes Benz that appears to condone bank robbery, contains gorgeous scenes of Hong Kong but I won't spoil the ending today.  Tomorrow I'll add my comments and more information about Canada's largest art theft.

You can read more about the 1972 theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts here.