The security guards later described the thieves to the police, according to The Gazette's Luana Parker who cited the police reports:
“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.”
After the theft was discovered, the local police alerted Interpol, the international police agency, and all points along the Canadian-American border to prevent the stolen art from leaving Canada. The police photographed the crime scene at the museum. No fingerprints were found. No weapons were found. Some art students from the École des beaux-arts located east of the museum were suspected of involvement in the theft and the police had them under surveillance for a few weeks. Tension between the French-speaking students and the English-speaking museum administrators had been public for years. The investigation provided no leads to the thieves or the paintings.
Despite the surveillance, no arrests were made
“For fifteen days, the police followed five suspects, night and day,” Lacoursière recalled. In his opinion, the students had not organized the crime but that it had been orchestrated by someone older and with more experience.
Lacoursière, now retired, had reviewed the police reports on the museum theft while on the police force. “A couple of weeks before the theft, two guys with sunglasses and cigarettes sat on chairs on the roof, sitting and watching, claiming that they worked at the museum,” Lacoursière said. “But after the theft, no one could find the chairs.”
However, police arrested no suspects and nothing came from questioning the workers repairing the skylight at the museum. Although the intruders knew that the alarm on the skylight had been disabled, they were not aware of how not to trip off the alarm on the side entrance. They also did not know that the alarm was not connected to any source outside of the museum building or they would not have abandoned half of the paintings and their plans to escape in a panel truck.
“No one on the museum staff was involved,” Bantey said in 2010. “If there was any inside information, it probably emanated from the people working on the skylight repairs.”
The ransom demand
A few days after the theft, the museum director, David Giles Carter, received a telephone call from one of the thieves. Carter described the caller as having a “nasal” voice. By following the caller’s instructions, the museum recovered a small Indian pendant outside a telephone booth near McGill University.
Through additional communications by mail and the telephone, including a letter received October 26 containing a snapshot showing all the stolen paintings together, according to Paul Delean who wrote for The Gazette about the theft on the 10th anniversary after seeing an ad for a reward for the missing paintings. Sources for his article were museum officials with little cooperation from the police.
Bill Bantey interviewed Carter for the 35th anniversary of the theft. He said that Carter spoke more openly about the ransom attempts in the subsequent months after the theft than during his term as director until 1976.
“Carter gave the thief [the one that had contacted him] the nom de guerre ‘Port of Montreal’ because those words appeared on a brown envelope the museum director received from the robbers containing snapshots of the works to prove they had them in their possession.”
According to Delean, the thieves demanded a ransom of 25 percent of the value of the stolen art -- $500,000 – but later lowered the figure to $250,000. The art collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gathered over the past 112 years from some of the wealthiest families in Canada, was insured for almost $8 million.
The museum director requested proof that the robbers still had the paintings. The museum’s security director was told to go to a locker in Montreal’s central train station where he found a painting, Landscape with buildings and wagon, thought to be by Brueghel. It was given to Ruth Jackson for storage and kept there for more than 10 years until the institution could afford another frame. Since then, the painting has been reattributed to the School of Jan Brueghel the Elder and returned to the walls of the museum. This is the painting that Lacoursière will later on call a “fake” and attribute it’s return as an inconsequential gesture by the thieves.
A few weeks later, a Montreal police officer pretending to be an insurance adjuster waited in a field in the nearby jurisdiction of Longueuil to exchange $5,000 for one of the paintings. However, a local police cruiser, unaware of the rendezvous, drove by the drop site and spooked the bandits. Carter received an angry call from the thieves the next day claiming that they had seen the police trap.
According to Lacoursiére, the ransom demand could have been a smokescreen to cover up that the paintings had already been sold. “The meeting was set up in a field with no houses around,” he said. “The thieves could have seen the cops moving into the set up. In 1972, few cars would have been passing by and it would have been easy to spot four to five cop cars. They (the thieves) never tried again, so it was a smokescreen. Look, when the museum first asked for proof that the thieves had the paintings, the one painting that was returned was a fake.”
Lacoursière said that the paintings could have been divided up and sold in Europe before the items could have been entered into the Interpol database. The paintings were not marked with the name of the museum. “The theft could have been done to fulfill an order for stolen paintings and then the ransom was asked as a smokescreen,” Lacoursière said.