Thursday, September 4, 2014

Canada's Largest Art Theft: The 42nd anniversary of the 1972 robbery 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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The 41st anniversary of the theft: and still counting

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Canada's largest art theft occurred during Labor Day weekend more than four decades ago.

After midnight on Monday, September 4, 1972, a man with picks on his boots -- the same equipment used to scale telephone poles -- climbed a tree onto the roof two-story 1912 Beaux-Arts building on Sherbrooke Street which held the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He found a long construction ladder and lowered it to two accomplices on the ground who joined him on the roof.
Rembrandt's Landscape with Cottages - stolen 1972

The trio walked over to a skylight that had been under repair for two weeks, opened it, and slid down a 15-meter nylon cord to the second floor. A plastic sheet placed over the skylight had neutralized the security alarm. At 1.30 a.m., one intruder twice fired a 12-pump shotgun into the ceiling when a guard completing his rounds hesitated before dropping to the floor. Two other guards were overpowered, bound, and gagged. All three guards were held at gunpoint by one of their assailants (one of the guards would later untie himself an hour after the thieves left the building).

After 30 minutes of selecting paintings and jewelry, the thieves used a guard's key to open the door of the museum's panel truck parked in the garage. In the process, a side door alarm was tripped and the trio escaped on foot, abandoning more than 15 paintings by artists such as El Greco, Picasso, and Tintoretto and stealing 39 pieces of jewelry and 18 paintings by Rembrandt, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Millet, and Rubens.

The Museum's Vulnerability

The museum's art collection, assembled over the past century from some of the wealthiest families in Canada, was insured for almost $8 million. Many of the stolen paintings had been widely publicized in Masterpieces from Montreal, an exhibition that had visited eight cities in the United States in the 18 months leading up to the Montreal Expo in 1967. The building itself was more than 60 years old and had not been updated (in 1973 it would close for three years for extensive renovation and expansion). Financially, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art was struggling -- many of the English-speaking, mostly Protestant art patrons that had supported the MMFA had fled Montreal when Quebec nationalists gained political power. The provincial government provided grants making up only 40 percent of the museum's revenues. During Labor Day weekend, many of the top museum officials -- the MMFA's president, director, and the head of security and traffic -- were on their summer holidays outside of Canada. The highest ranking museum official -- and the first one called after the robbery -- was the director of public relations.

Recovery Efforts

The museum director received an envelope containing snapshots of the paintings as 'proof of life' and a ransom demand later negotiated down to $250,000. Someone with a "European" accent called the museum director and asked him to send someone to a telephone booth near McGill University where a pendant was recovered from inside a nearby cigarette package. The MMFA demanded additional proof that the thieves had possession of the paintings and were led to a locker at Montreal's Central Station and a painting by Brueghel the Elder (now re-attributed as belonging to the School of Brueghel). A rendezvous arranged between the thieves and an "insurance adjuster" (who was really a police officer) to exchange the ransom for the paintings was aborted when a squad car from a neighboring police district drove by the meeting spot. The insurance companies posted a $50,000 award for information leading to the arrest of the thieves or the recovery of the art before paying more than $1.9 million to settle the museum's claim. In 1973, a "wild good chase" between an anonymous caller and an insurance agent cost the museum board of directors $10,000 but recovered none of the paintings.

Suspects

The museum guards described two of the thieves as 'long-haired' men of medium height wearing ski hoods and carrying sawed-off shotguns. Two of the thieves spoke French, the third English. A week into the investigation, police officials focused on five art students from the neighboring Ecole des Beaux-Arts and surveilled them for 15 days without arresting anyone. In Montreal, local criminal organizations included French-Canadian mobsters, the English-speaking Irish West End gang that controlled the seaport, and the Italian mafia. However, the thieves' method of entering the museum through a skylight under repair led some police officers to believe that the thieves represented an experienced international crime network.

In May 1972, two criminals working for Florian "Al" Monday robbed the Worcester Art Museum in central Massachusetts, taking four paintings, including the gallery's only Rembrandt, St. Bartholomew.  (All four paintings were returned within a month). 

"Art-napping" in the 1960s in the South of France

Since 1960, criminal networks from Corsica or Marseilles had stolen paintings and held them for ransom in the South of france. An art dealer's home outside of Niece had been robbed of 30 paintings and two months later thieves climbed up the building of a museum in Menton to steal seven paintings. The next month, thieves broke into a restaurant through a window and stole 20 paintings. In July 1961, thieves in Saint Tropez climbed a fence to steal 57 paintings; the next month, thieves stole eight paintings by Paul Cézanne from a guarded temporary exhibit. Most of these artworks were found months later upon payment of ransom, showing the profitability of "art-napping", the holding of a work of art to extort money. In December 1971, a Rembrandt painting was stolen from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, France.

Where are the paintings now?

The paintings may have been destroyed to prevent the 'evidence' being used against the thieves in the prosecution of the crime. None of the paintings, listed by Interpol and the Art Loss Register, have been knowingly sold at public auction. However, the paintings may have been sold through small art dealers who did not check the stolen art databases. Before 1985, not even the larger auction houses checked stolen art databases. If the paintings have been sold privately, the value may have been discounted. One or more of the paintings may be in the winter residences belonging to one or more of the members of the West End gang who are beyond the jurisdiction of Canadian authorities in Costa Rica. 

After the Theft

More than 25 insurance companies paid the MMFA $2 million for the missing works. In 1975, the museum purchased a large painting by Peter Paul Rubens, The Leopards, with a substantial part of the insurance proceeds. On the 35th anniversary of the theft, the painting by Rubens was placed in storage following an expert opinion that the work was not by the artist but by assistants from his studio.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

40th anniversary of the unsolved theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art passes quietly

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Forty years ago yesterday 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.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

40th anniversary approaching


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 escape 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?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bill Bantey's Obituary in the Globe and Mail

Not until today did I find Bill Bantey's obituary in the Globe and Mail.

Here's a link to his wife Judy's obituary in The (Montreal) Gazette.  She died on February 13, 2011, at the age of 83, just 2 1/2 months after her husband Bill.

Bill Bantey did not want me to include in my article on the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts the dinner that he made for Judy and me in their home.  It was a five course meal that began at 6.30 in the evening and lasted until 1 o'clock in the morning.  Bill, recently out of the hospital and not well-enough to go out to a restaurant, prepared the entire meal for us and would not let either of us do a thing.  He vacillated between being gruff with us and being charming.  We had such a good time the three of us.  And their home was filled with beautiful art displayed in the most casual way.

Millet's "Portrait of Madame Millet"

Jean-François Millet. French, 1814-75
Portrait de Madame Millet
Oil on canvas, 13 3/8 by 10 ½ inches
Miss Olive Hosmer Bequest, 1963

Millet's "La baratteuse (Young Woman Churning)"

Jean-François Millet. French, 1814-75
La baratteuse (Young Woman Churning), about 1849-50
Oil on panel, 11 ½ x 6 ½ inches
Mrs. R. MacD. Paterson Bequest, 1949