Part IV: Publicizing a Museum Theft

In the months after the theft, Bill Bantey prepared a bilingual circular, Attention: Stolen, identifying the stolen paintings’ images and measurements. In January 1973, this information was circulated throughout the international art market to notify art dealers and collectors that these paintings belonged to the museum in Montreal. Instead of keeping the theft quiet, museum officials chose to publicize the loss in hopes of ‘frustrating any plans the underworld might have for selling the works on the sly.’

“The idea is to see that the items become so well catalogued and so well known that it would be unlikely that any collector or museum buyer could innocently purchase them.”

The day after the museum theft, newspapers throughout North America had published the news and identified most or all of the paintings. However, the news of the museum theft was overshadowed the following news day with headlines reporting the deaths of Israeli athletes by Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists. Even locally, the big story in Montreal was of a deliberately set fire over Labor Day Weekend at a nightclub that had killed 37 people and injured another 54, many critically. Until the museum circulated Attention: Stolen, no other articles had been written about the theft of the paintings. Over the years, the occasional article covered the theft, but journalists were either not privy to newsworthy events or nothing of substance happened despite a $50,000 award posted by the insurance company for information leading to the arrest of the thieves or the recovery of the art.

Restitution to the museum

Eventually, when the paintings were not recovered, more than 20 insurance companies, led by Marine Office of America, paid $1,945,300 to settle the museum’s claim arising from the theft. The insurance companies now own the paintings.

With a large part of the proceeds from the insurance claim, in 1975 the museum purchased a large painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled The Leopards. However, on the 35th anniversary of the theft, the painting was withdrawn from exhibit as experts determined the work was not by Rubens but by assistants from his studio.

Bill Bantey interviewed two former museum officials who at the time of The Leopards acquisition had been counseled by the Rubens scholar and expert Dr. Julius Held. Léo Rosshandler, the museum’s deputy director in 1975, told Bantey: “Fake is a harsh word, but the painting is not by the person who was said to have painted it, but probably by his studio”.

Dr. Held, in the museum’s quarterly review in 1975 at the time of the purchase, noted that Rubens, when he was writing in 1618 to the prospective buyer who wanted to exchange classical antiquities for three of his paintings, claimed that he had done the leopards, satyrs and nymphs but that the landscape was the work of an (unnamed) specialist. Jan Brueghel the Elder, Rubens’s friend, had even copied the same leopards in a painting depicting Animals on the Way to Noah’s Ark (Aspley House, London). Held traced Rubens’s leopards from the palace of a Spanish governor in Brussels to the Palais Royal in Paris (then attributed to Marten de Vos) to the Royal Academy in London in 1791. Afterward, the whereabouts of the paintings were unknown until the museum acquired it in France.