Part II: 'The Skylight Caper'

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is located on Sherbrooke Street, an elegant main thoroughfare in the Golden Mile area, where the majority of wealthy Canadians had resided while accumulating money from expansion of the transcontinental railway and natural resources to invest in art collections in their fashionable mansions until the stock market crash in 1929.

In the decade before the theft, the traditional power elite of Montreal, an English-speaking Protestant minority, had ceded to the political strength of a French-speaking majority who had become more nationalistic and secular. The museum’s revenue sources changed from private donations to a mixture of generosity from upcoming and new benefactors and government funding.

The museum had not reached out to the bilingual public until Bill Bantey began issuing communications in French and English beginning in 1957 when he began as the museum’s public relations advisor. In the years before the robbery, the finances of the institution had weakened and although museum officials planned to expand and improve the museum’s facilities, funding lagged, and it managed along in cramped spaces in a 60-year-old three-story Beaux Arts building of granite and marble.

‘The Skylight Caper’

Bill Bantey was the most senior museum official in town on Labor Day weekend in 1972. He and another long-time associate, Ruth Jackson, then curator of decorative arts, arrived at the museum after the robbery to inventory the damage. They created a list of 18 stolen paintings and 39 pieces of jewelry and silver and estimated the value at $2 million. The stolen paintings included a 10-by-15 ½ inch landscape oil on panel, Evening Landscape with Cottages, by Rembrandt valued then at $1 million and works by Jan Brueghel the Elder; Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; Gustave Courbet; Honoré Daumier; Eugéne Delacroix; Narcisse-Virgile de la Peña; Thomas Gainsborough; Jan Davidsz de Heem; Jean-François Millet; Giovanni Battista Piazetta; Peter Paul Rubens; and François-André Vincent. Paintings by El Greco, Picasso, Tintoretto, and Rembrandt had been stacked by a service door and abandoned when the burglars triggered that door’s alarm.

The thieves had left behind “a scene of war-time desolation” as Carter once described to Bantey. Ruth Jackson described the scene to a reporter:

“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.”

A few hours after the theft, Bantey held a press conference attended by local and national journalists from radio, daily newspapers, and national and international wire services such as the Canadian Press (CP) and the Associated Press (AP). The news of the theft and the names and images of the stolen paintings were published on the front pages of newspapers throughout Canada and the United States the following day.

Luana Parker for The Gazette, one of Montreal’s largest daily English newspapers, reported under the headline “Art Worth $2 million stolen from the museum”, that investigators had found a long construction ladder on one of the back walls of the museum at Sherbrooke Street and Ontario Avenue. Photos in Montreal’s French language daily newspaper, Montreal-Matin, showed a tree situated between the museum and a church to the west that an intruder had climbed up to jump onto the roof of the museum to get a ladder which he then lowered to two accomplices.

The burglar had scaled the tree by using “picks” on his boots similar to equipment used by telephone and utility repair personnel, according to Alain Lacoursière, retired art investigator for the Montreal police. “The shoe picks were the same as those used by Bell Canada,” he said in 2007 in a CBC Documentary, “Le Colombo de l’art.”

The three men entered the museum building by opening a skylight that had been under repair for two weeks.

“Normally, there’s no way these people could get into the building,” Bill Bantey told Parker at The Gazette in 1972. “The skylight is hooked up to the alarm and the only entrance is the side door where you have to be recognized to enter. But we have been doing repairs on the skylight, it’s not as good as it used to be, and so the alarm system was only partially functioning. If they had tried to come through a different section of the skylight, the alarm would have gone off.”

“A construction crew working at the building had dropped a plastic sheet over the alarm, neutralizing it,” Bantey wrote in The Gazette in 2007.

It appeared that the intruders knew beforehand that the skylight was not secured. Employees of the museum and the construction crew were questioned as to whether or not they were directly or indirectly involved with the theft but the investigation was inconclusive.

Alain Lacoursiére stressed how the intruders entered the museum. “The thieves opened the skylight, they did not break it.” According to Lacoursiére, someone had been watching the museum. “A couple of weeks before the theft, two guys with sunglasses and cigarettes sat on chairs on the roof,” he said. “They claimed they worked at the museum, but after the theft, no one could find the chairs.”

Once inside the museum, the intruders overpowered the security guards. Luana Parker recounts the robbery in The Gazette:
“The thieves entered the museum quietly, at about 1:30 a.m. sliding down a nylon rope slung from the skylight. When they climbed in, they found a guard who had just made the rounds on the second floor and was prepared to brew some tea for his break. They ordered him to lie down on his stomach, and when he didn’t move quickly enough, one of the men fired a shot into the ceiling. 
“Two other guards, on duty on the main floor, rushed upstairs to investigate and all three were bound and gagged and brought downstairs to Arthur Lismer Hall. They were forced to lie in the hall while the thieves made their art collection in 30 minutes. 
“All alarms in the three-storey museum operate on separate circuits. And when one of the burglars accidentally tripped the side-entry alarm on his way out with the first load, the men ran out, taking what they could. They escaped in a panel truck.”
This information is not accurate, according to Alain Lacoursière in 2009, who has reviewed the police report: Two weapons, a 12-pump shotgun and a .38 Smith and Wesson handgun, were used in the robbery and two shots were fired into the ceiling. Also, the thieves not not leave in a panel truck, according to Lacoursière. Using one of the guard’s keys, Lacoursière said, the thieves had opened the museum’s panel truck but after an alarm was triggered, they grabbed a bunch of the paintings, stuffed jewelry into their pockets, and escaped on foot, running down Sherbrooke Street.

An hour passed before one of the guards freed himself. In compliance with the existing museum policy to contact the most senior available museum official, the senior security officer telephoned Bill Bantey since the museum’s president, director, and security director were vacationing in the United States and Mexico. Bantey instructed the guard to call the police then drove to the museum, arriving a few minutes after the local police officers.