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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."