Showing posts with label largest art theft in Canada. Show all posts
Showing posts with label largest art theft in Canada. 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.

September 5, 2012

40th anniversary of Canada's biggest art theft quietly passes

This painting by Rembrandt was stolen from
the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
 in 1972 and remains missing. 
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
 ARCA Blog Editor

Forty years ago today three men robbed the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts -- they have never been caught and 17 of the paintings have never been found.

When three men stole 18 paintings by such well-known artists as Rembrandt, Corot, Courbet, Breughel and Millet from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on September 4, 1972 it was the largest art theft in North America.  The thieves have never been arrested for this art heist and the pictures remain missing but it was not the perfect crime.  The setting off of an old security alarm scared the thieves off and prevented them from stealing more art.  And the attempt to ransom back the loot, which also included 39 pieces of jewelry and decorative art, failed.

One of the difficulties of describing the robbery of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1972 is that the police do not show the crime's files to journalists or researchers since the case remains open.  Luana Parker's reporting after the heist for The [Montreal] Gazette under the headline "Art worth $2 million stolen from museum" provided the foundation for much of information about the thieves' physical description and how they stole the paintings and 39 pieces of jewelry and decorative art. Her work is footnoted in an academic article on this subject published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Journal of Art Crime. Five years ago, retired journalist Bill Bantey, the museum's director of public relations and the first official alerted to the art heist, wrote an article about the theft. In 2009, I met with Mr. Bantey and retired Montreal police officer Alain Lacoursière to piece together information about the theft.  Mr. Lacoursière discussed information he recalled from working on the case in the 1990s while investigating art crime.

Here's a synopsis of my version of the art heist nicknamed "The Skylight Caper" (by columnist L. Ian MacDonald writing "Montreal this morning" for The Gazette in 1975):

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was robbed in the early hours of Labor Day on September 5, 1972. The city had plenty of distractions that weekend. On Friday night, three men set fire to the Blue Bird Café and Wagon Wheel killing 37 people of the 200 trapped on the supper floor of the country western bar.  On Saturday night, Canada's national hockey team lost 7-3 to the "amateur" team from the Soviet Union which stunned overly confidant fans.  Sunday's newspapers were filled with stories about the victims from Montreal's fatal fire, otherwise Montreal residents were looking forward to a rematch against the Russians in Toronto the next day and marking the end of a summer exposition with fireworks.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the city's most prestigious art gallery was expecting a quiet weekend. The museum's director, its head of security, and even the president of the Board of Trustees were on vacation in Mexico and the United States. The 60-year-old building housing the art collection, created through donations from some of Canada's wealthiest residents, had a skylight under repair and was scheduled to be closed for a major renovation.

Early Monday morning a man wearing "picks" on his boots (similar to equipment worn by telephone and utility repair personnel) scaled a tree outside of the building on Sherbrooke Street to reach the roof. He found a construction ladder, slipped it down to the ground for two more men to join him on top of the museum building.  The three men walked over to the skylight under construction and opened it up. A plastic tarp laid down by the construction crew had de-activated the skylight's alarm. The thieves, who had a 12-pump shotgun and a .38 Smith and Wesson handgun, slid down nylon ropes at about 1.30 a.m. They ordered a security guard to lie down on the floor, when he did not move quickly enough, two shots were fired into the ceiling. Two more guards arrived and the thieves tied up the three guards.  While one man watched the security guards, the other two men gathered up paintings, jewelry and other valuable portable objects.  Luana Parker cites this description of the thieves from the police report:
They said they saw two long-haired men, about five feet, six inches tall, and wearing ski hoods and sports clothes.  One spoke French, the other English.  But they heard another French voice of a man they never saw.
The thieves planned to escape in a museum panel truck parked in the garage.  However, one of the thieves "tripped the side-entry alarm on his way out with the first load, the men ran out, taking what they could" (Parker).

While Parker reported that the thieves "escaped in a panel truck", Alain Lacoursière told me that the thieves ran out of the building, carrying only half of the paintings that they had selected.

Bill Bantey, the senior museum official on duty that weekend, received a phone call from the head security guard about an hour after the thieves had escaped.  He told the security guard to call the police, and then Bantey went down to the museum in the early morning hours.  Ruth Jackson, a long-time museum curator, also arrived at the museum, now a crime scene, and would describe later what she saw:
There was a sea of broken frames and backings, and smashed showcases.  Upstairs in the room where the major theft took place, it was just devastation.  They'd cleaned it out completely. 
For the second pile, they'd gone around selecting from various rooms.  I shudder when I think what might have been if they hadn't opened that door ... With what they'd proposed to remove, if they'd been undisturbed -- it was just like they meant a general clear out of the museum.
Mr. Bantey organized a press conference a few hours later and released information about the stolen paintings.  Only one painting was recovered a few months later.

You can read more about the theft on my blog here and see images of the stolen paintings.

August 31, 2012

Approaching 40th anniversary of Canada's largest art theft: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, September 4, 1972


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.

August 28, 2011

The Journal of Art Crime, Spring 2011: "The Skylight Caper: The Unsolved 1972 Theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts"

Catherine Schofield Sezgin's article "The Skylight Caper: The Unsolved 1972 Theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts" has been published in the fifth issue of The Journal of Art Crime (Spring 2011).

Rembrandt Stolen from MMFA in 1972
This article examines previously published articles on Canada's largest art theft, the 1972 unsolved theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and compares the information with two principals involved with the museum and the investigation. It explores the ideas proposed in the last four decades as to who may have committed the theft and the alleged whereabouts of 39 pieces of jewelry and silver and the 17 missing paintings, including art by Rembrandt, Corot, Rubens and Courbet. This article describes the history of museum thefts in Canada, how the crime was committed, and some characteristics that may have made this museum and those paintings a target for theft.

Catherine Schofield Sezgin, a graduate from ARCA's Postgraduate Program in International Art Crime Studies in 2009, worked closely with Bill Bantey, retired journalist and director of public relations for the museum at the time of the theft, and Alain Lacoursière, retired Montreal police officer specializing in art crime.

You may read updates about the case on her blog, The Unsolved 1972 Theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The Journal of Art Crime is available via subscription through ARCA's website and from Amazon.com.