Part V: Comparable Crimes and the 'Masterpieces from Montreal'

The Montreal police officer heading the investigation of the theft of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts believed the heist was local in origin.

A few days before the 'Skylight Caper' on Labor Day weekend, another theft was committed, according to report Luana Parker in The Gazette the day after the museum theft:
“Police say there are similarities between the two. On August 30, three hooded and armed men stole paintings worth an estimated $50,000 from the home of Mrs. Agnes Meldrum at Oka, about 20 miles west of Montreal. They had climbed 600 feet up a steep bluff from a motorboat on the Lake of Two Mountains. They wore hoods and gloves; two of them spoke French; the other, English.”
The site of the break-in was the summer home of the wife of a Montreal moving-company owner, Meldrum the Mover, based in Notre-Dame-des-Grace (NDG), the English-speaking neighborhood of Montreal. However, Bill Bantey disagreed that the crimes are connected. “The Oka case is not on the same scale,” Bantey said in 2009.

Could local organized crime have stolen the paintings?

In the 1950s, Montreal was a “wide open city of sin” with “bars and strip joins everywhere downtown.” Two decades later, at the time of the theft, criminal organizations in the city included a group of French-Canadian mobsters; an Italian Mafia; and the Irish English-speaking West End gang that controlled Montreal’s seaport.

Bill Bantey, a journalist who had covered crime in Montreal during the 1950s and 1960s, was of the opinion that there was no justification for suspecting the West End Gang despite a ‘Port of Montreal’ stamp on one of the envelopes sent by the thieves. “The West End gang was into drugs and this theft was specialized in that it required some knowledge of art as they took the right pieces,” Bantey said. “The Mafia was interested in prostitution and drugs.”

Could international art thieves have stolen the Montreal masterpieces?

The police investigation of the ladder or the nylon ropes used in the robbery provided no leads. The thieves’ method of entering the museum – through a skylight under repair – led the police to believe that the thieves represented an experienced international ring.

Since 1960 in the South of France, criminal networks from Corsica or Marseilles had stolen paintings and held them for ransom. In January of 1960, an art dealer’s home outside of Nice was robbed of 30 paintings. Two months later, thieves climbed up the building of a museum in Menton to steal seven paintings. The next month, thieves broke a window of a restaurant and stole 20 paintings. In July of 1961, thieves climbed a fence to steal 57 paintings from a collection in Saint Tropez. The following month, thieves stole eight paintings by Paul Cézanne from a guarded temporary exhibit. Most paintings were found months later upon payment of ransom.

Art thefts continued to spread. In September 1971, Johannes Vermeer’s The Love Letter was stolen from the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels and recovered although no ransom was paid. Within the next eight months, Rembrandt paintings were stolen from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, France, and from the Worcester Art Museum in Massachussets.

Interpol’s Stolen art database in 2009 still maintains files on the paintings stolen from the Montreal museum. In addition, Interpol tracks thefts of other paintings by the same artists. However, Interpol does not elaborate on the thefts, providing on the dates, the city, and whether or not the painting has been recovered.

The most famous outstanding stolen Rembrandt paintings are The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (Rembrandt's only seascape) and Lady and Gentleman in Black, cut from its frame during a robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum on St. Patrick’s Day (March 18th) in 1990. A few paintings by Delacroix, Battista, de Heem, Diaz de la Peña, Gainsborough, and Daumier remain missing since 1972 from major cities such as Rome and London and in smaller towns in Portugal; Switzerland; France; and Ireland. As of October 2009, Interpol reported substantial thefts of paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (20 paintings); Jan Brueghel the Elder (16); Corot (14); and Courbet (9) from as early as 1957 in the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Switzerland, Paraguay; Belgium; Czech Republic; Monaco; Greece; Austria; Germany; the Netherlands; Sweden; Slovenia; and Canada.

Would a secretive obsessed collector steal and hide the paintings?

In the year following the theft, an experienced investigator of stolen art in Montreal believed that the paintings could be in a private collection. J. D. DeQuoy of Underwriter’s Adjustment Bureau Ltd. of Montreal told a reporter that the motive for the thefts could be, although unusual, from a psychological point of view, “a wealthy collector who is happy to own a valuable painting even though he can only look at it himself”.

According to The Star reporter Patrick Finn, the existence of a criminal art collector “of the Dr. No variety, who could have no scruples about harboring stolen paintings in his home”. Finn wrote that museum, police and insurance spokesman had mentioned the possibility that the art works might be kept until the publicity diminished then be sold to a collector.

Was it politically motivated?

In the 1960s, the separatist movement – the political drive to empower the French-speaking majority in Quebec and to secede from Canada – attracted a terrorist group that delivered letter bombs to wealthy English-speaking residents of Montreal and bombed federal buildings and monuments.

In 1970, a kidnapped British diplomat was exchanged for political prisoners and transportation to Cuba. When a kidnapped provincial cabinet minister was murdered, Canada’s prime minister sent in the military to control the city.

No one would rob the museum over politics opined Bantey. “The motive was just for the ransom,” he said.

Why steal these paintings?

Art as a valuable commodity had not escaped the attention of the local newspapers. The Montreal Star reported in 1969 that “Wide Demand for Art Sends Prices Soaring.” Picasso and Josef Albers could not produce enough art to satisfy the demand and the limited inventory was driving up prices. A year later, Quebec papers bragged that the Montreal Museum of Fine Art would be exhibiting glorious French paintings from its collection, including such artists as Daumier, Delacroix, and Courbet. The museum’s intruders did not have to have degrees in art history to understand that valuable paintings could be found in the heart of Montreal and that local collectors were interested in paying for them.

Almost all of the 18 stolen paintings had been published years before the theft in handbooks and exhibition catalogues of the museum’s collection. Thieves could have selected the paintings without having visited the museum. In anticipation of the 1967 World Exposition in Montreal, the museum had organized a traveling exhibition from January 1966 through April 1967, visiting eight galleries in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. Half of the stolen paintings had been highlighted in the exhibition catalogue, Masterpieces from Montreal: de Heem’s Nature morte; Corot’s La Rêvuse á la fontaine; Courbet’s Landscape with rocks and streams; Delacroix’s Lionness and lion in a cave; Diaz de la Peña’s The Sorceress; Thomas Gainsborough’s Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Thomas Fletcher; de Heem’s Nature morte au poisson; and Piazetta’s Portrait of a Man.

A few years later, in 1969, the museum showed Rembrandt and His Pupils to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the artist’s death. In 1970, the museum exhibited From Daumier to Rauault, including Delacroix’s painting of the lion in the cave, Daumier’s Head; Corot; Millet’s Portrait of Madame Millet and La Baratteuse; Diaz de la Peña’s sorceress; and Courbet’s landscape. Both exhibitions produced publications including information or images about the paintings. Only the two Brueghel paintings, Peter Paul Ruben’s Head of a Young Man, and two portraits by François-André Vincent had received scant attention in publications or exhibitions.

The other stolen pieces of jewelry and silver were more portable than valuable. On the day of the theft, Bill Bantey said at the press conference: “They (the thieves) did show quite discriminating taste, however, in terms of paintings, though as far as the objects are concerned, they could do with more art and historical training.”

Stolen items included an 18th century gold watch once owned by the wife of the first mayor of Montreal, Jacques Vigor; a 19th century French blue enamel latch box set with diamonds; and 17th century Spanish jewelry, a gold and emerald pendant on a woven gold chain and a seed pearl necklace with a diamond pendant.

From a physical standpoint, the paintings had something in common with the stolen jewelry – they were small and easy to carry or trade on the art market. The paintings could be appropriate for decorating a private home – the pairs of Corots, Millets, and Brueghel landscapes could be hung together in a room.

Three of the paintings (Millet’s Young Woman Churning and the two by Brueghel) were less than 80 square inches, about the size of a piece of notebook paper. Five paintings (the two portraits by Vincent, the portrait by Millet, the head shot by Daumier, and the Rembrandt 120 to 155 square inches), could be easily carried in a tote or by hand. Five paintings (de Heem’s Vanitas, Diaz de la Peña’s Sorceress, Piazetta’s Portrait, Corot’s Young Women Resting, and Delacroix’s Lionness) were roughly 220 to 280 square inches, fitting comfortable in someone’s arms. Rubens’s Head and the de Heem Still Life with a fish were about 350 square inches (roughly 21 x 17 inches) and stackable. The three largest paintings (Corot’s Dreamer, Gainsborough’s Brigadier, and the Courbet landscape were progressively larger (roughly 460, 745 and 1,000 square inches, respectively). The three largest paintings would have been awkward for one person of medium height (5 foot, 6 inches) to carry, but each of the three thieves could have used just one hand to carry out one of the large paintings, even running, if necessary.