Part I: Canada's Largest Art Theft

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

Part I of VIII

Canada’s largest art theft occurred on Labor Day in 1972 when three men stole $2 million worth of art from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. That weekend forty years ago, Rudolf Nureyev danced with the National Ballet in Ottawa; Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship in Iceland; and Mark Spitz immediately retired after winning seven gold medals at the Olympics in Munich. News of the museum theft faded the day after the robbery when Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli Olympic athletes. Although we know what happened afterward -- Nureyev died from AIDS in 1993, Fischer lost his American citizenship, and those responsible for the Olympic massacre were hunted down and killed by Israeli agents -- the whereabouts of the 18 paintings -- including one attributed to Rembrandt – or the 39 pieces of jewelry and silver stolen almost 40 years ago remain elusive.

In 2008, Ulrich Boser wrote about the world’s largest art theft in his book, The Gardner Heist, and on page 172 mentioned the theft at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, another unsolved art crime where the paintings have disappeared from the public. Until journalist Bill Bantey wrote an article on the 35th anniversary of the Montreal museum theft, published accounts of the robbery were limited to a few recorded radio and television news spots as newspaper accounts of the crime were limited to Canadian newspapers archived within the country and articles published before 1985 not accessible on the internet.

Studying this unsolved crime is limited to published newspaper accounts and recorded radio and television news because the police reports remain closed in this investigation. However, in November 2009, two people familiar with this case agreed to share their opinions for this article. Bill Bantey was the director of public relations for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 1957 to 1980 and the museum’s spokesperson on the day of the theft. The second person, Alain Lacoursière, is a retired Montreal police officer of more than 30 years who earned a degree in art history and earned the nickname “le Columbo de l’art” for his work in apprehending art thieves and retrieving stolen art. He had the opportunity to review the original police files on this unsolved museum theft in the 1990s and pursued a number of leads in hopes of locating the stolen art by artists that included such household recognizable names as Rembrandt, Corot, Courbet, Brueghel, and Millet. This article compares the published information with interviews almost 40 years later to create a portrait of an art theft.

Previous art thefts

The robbery of Montreal’s 112-year-old cultural institution was not the first major art theft in Canada. Two decades earlier, the Art Gallery of Toronto had been robbed three times. In the first assault on the public institution in 1954, a thief stole Dutch-Canadian painter Krieghoff’s Basketmaker but returned it after receiving a promise that he would not be prosecuted. However, a few months later, thieves used projecting bricks on the exterior wall to climb 20 feet up to an unsecured window, roam the art gallery for at least an hour without setting off the alarm system, and stole stealing Peter Paul Ruben’s Elevation of the Cross before abandoning it nearby. In 1959, thieves stole six works by Franz Halls, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Renoir valued at $1,500,000. When the insured paintings were returned three weeks later, museum and police officials declined to comment on whether or not a ransom had been paid.

Nor was the 1972 robbery the first at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. On April 17, 1933, the Art Gallery superintendent who lived on the premises conducted his night rounds without the help of his dog who had fallen suddenly ill. Unbeknownst to him, a thief had hidden in the museum overnight and passed 14 paintings by Canadian artists through a window in the women’s washroom to an accomplice. A ransom note demanded $10,000 for the return of the paintings. Three months later, half of one of the paintings was mailed to La Presse, the other half to The Star with an accompanying note demanded 25 percent of the paintings’ value as ransom and threatened to return the works “in jigsaw” pieces. According to Bill Bantey:
“Then police got an unexpected break. A small-time burglar by the name of Paul Thouin was arrested while breaking into a railway freight car. Under questioning, he confessed to the Museum theft. He even led police to the paintings, wrapped in a tarpaulin and newspapers, and buried in a sandpit a meter below ground in a wooded area near the village of L’Epiphanie. The prospect of another jail term was evidently too much for Thouin. That night, he swallowed a doze of strychnine which he had concealed in the heel of his shoe and died in a police lock up.”
In 1960, thieves attempted a robbery of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts during an exhibition of works by Vincent van Gogh, but the attempt failed and the thieves escaped.