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

Corot's "La rêveuse à la fontaine" (The Dreamer at the Fountain)

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French, 1796 – 1875
La rêveuse à la fontaine (The Dreamer at the Fountain), 1855-63
Oil on canvas, 25 ¼ x 18 ¼ inches
Gift in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Wiliam F. Angus, 1962

Corot's "Jeune fille accoudée sur le bras gauche"

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French, 1796 – 1875
Jeune fille accoudée sur le bras gauche, 1865
Oil on canvas, 18 ¼ x 15 inches
Miss Olive Hosmer Bequest, 1963

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Received a Gift of Old Masters from Michal and Renata Hornstein

On March 20th, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts issued a press release announcing the gift by Michal and Renata Hornstein of "close to" 80 works of 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings valued at $75 million.

The existing collection includes works by artists such as Veronese, El Greco, Rembrandt, De Heem, Snyders, Poussin, Claude, Tiepolo, Boucher, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Chassériau, Bouguereau, Daumier, Corot, Pissaro, Monet, Sisley, Rodin, Renoir, Matisse, Van Dongen, Giacometti, Dix, Rouault, and Picasso.

This reminds me of the great generosity of museum benefactors in the first half of the 20th century.

A new pavilion will be built to display the collection.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Was the 1972 theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts the second use of guns in a robbery of an art museum?

Now here's something interesting: Anthony Amore, security director of The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and author of Stealing Rembrandts, pointed out that the first use of guns in a robbery of an art museum was committed in May 1972 in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Was the second use of guns in September 1972 in Montreal, Quebec in the robbery of the Museum of Fine Arts?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Speculating on the whereabouts of the 17 paintings stolen from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Early in March, the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), Italy's 300-member art crime military police unit, found 37 paintings that had been stolen more than four decades ago from a residence in the Parioli district at the home of a neighbor.

A 50-year-old widow had put four paintings up for sale (the auction had has not been publicly identified) and the images of the artworks had been published in a sales catalogue.  In a routine check of objects for public sale against an in-house stolen art database of 3 million objects, the Carabinieri discovered that four of the paintings (I don't know which ones) that had been put up for sale had been reported stolen in 1971. The current owner of the paintings, which upon further investigation was found to have 37 of 41 stolen paintings from the 1971 burglary, is reported to have said that she and her husband purchased the paintings in a private sale more than two decades ago and that she was selling them to raise money after her husband's death.

Could the paintings stolen from Montreal's Museum of Fine Art still be in Montreal, located within walking distance of the museum, maybe in one of the lovely residences adjacent to Rue Sherbrooke east toward Westmount or west toward McGill University?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Earlier this month, The Guardian Reported "Stolen Paintings Recovered in Rome 40 years after art heist"

Carabinieri TPC's Press conference in March to announce
 the finding of 37 paintings stolen from a neighbor's house
 in the Parioli district of Rome more than 41 years ago. 
Tom Kington in Rome reports for The Guardian, "Stolen Paintings Recovered in Rome 40 years after art heist."

In his article, subtitled "Italian police find stolen paintings hanging in a house in the same district of Rome from where 42 works disappeared", Kington writes:
"It was one of the most audacious art thefts seen in Rome: one night in 1971 a gang of thieves slipped into the plush residence of a construction magnate in the upmarket Parioli neighbourhood and walked out with 42 rare paintings, including works by Van Dyck and Poussin."
Here's Frommers note on the Parioli district:
Parioli, Rome's most elegant residential section, Parioli, is framed by the green spaces of the Villa Borghese to the south and the Villa Glori and Villa Ada to the north.  It's a setting for some of the city's finest restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.  It's not exactly central, however, and it can be a hassle if you're dependent on public transportation.  Parioli lies adjacent to Prati but across the Tiber to the east; like Prati, this is one of the safer districts.  We'd call Parioli an area for connoisseurs, attracting those who shun the overrun Spanish Steps and the overly commercialized Via Veneto, and those who'd never admit to have been in the Termini area. [Frommers]
The 17th century Villa Borghese of course houses many beautiful paintings from the 15th to the 18th century (including works by Caravaggio, Lucas Cranach, Anton Van Dyck, Pieter Paul Rubens, and Titian) and lovely sculpture by artists such as Bernini. On my first trip to the Galleries Borghese we actually had seen so many lovely artworks on the ground floor that we had to force ourselves to the upper floor (and not all of our group had the stamina) only to find exquisite paintings by Raphael.

More information about the theft, the images of the paintings, and a list of the paintings can be found on ARCA's blog here, here, and here.