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.
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.
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.
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.