Part VII: Lacoursière follows up on Canada's largest art theft

In 1999, Alain Lacoursière, a detective sergeant in the economic crimes unit, offered $1,000,000 for information about the paintings but ‘nothing happened.’ A police officer for more than 25 years, Lacoursière added art crime investigations to his duties as a fraud detective in 1994. An art historian, Lacoursière made it a habit to visit art galleries and auction houses to develop contacts and leads to stolen art works. In 1998, he was introduced by an art dealer to a collector known here as Smith who said he had been an art student at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1972. Smith told Lacoursière that the French-speaking art students and the mostly English-speaking museum administrators did not get along. For example, Smith told Lacoursière, the student would be kicked out of the museum every afternoon so that the staff could enjoy their tea – before the museum’s posted closing time.

Lacoursière said that he felt Smith knew a lot about the museum theft. He asked Smith if he’d been one of the students investigated by the police following the robbery. Smith denied being under surveillance, but Lacoursière said he found Smith’s responses in general to be ‘highly suspicious.’ For example, Smith told Lacoursière that the nylon ropes used in the theft were not gray, as Lacoursière believed, but yellow such as the ropes used at the French-speaking art school. Lacoursière said he checked the dossier for that information, then contacted one of the retired police officers that told him that neither photos nor descriptions of the rope had been publicly released. Suspicions raised, Lacoursière said he investigated Smith’s background and found that after five years of schooling, Smith had purchased a house and a wood working company.

“One year after leaving school, where did he get a quarter of a million dollars to buy a house and a company?” Lacoursière asked. Lacoursière could not determine the source of Smith’s funds. Smith even told Lacoursière that someday he would tell him something about the theft. In 2007, when Lacoursière was featured in a Radio-Canada documentary, Le Colombo d’art, he visited Smith at his home. On camera, Lacoursière offered a million dollar check to Smith for the museum’s stolen paintings but Smith just laughed and invited the film crew into his home to show that the paintings were not there.

Asked to speculate on the whereabouts of the paintings, Lacoursière said, “The paintings could have been destroyed, but then there’s Smith with his new money. Plus, criminals have discovered uses for paintings and other art.”

Where could the paintings be?

Lacoursière said that the Montreal police have found art at the home of a member of the Hell’s Angels who said he regularly received stolen art and sold it to the Italian mafia at 10 percent of the estimated value. According to Lacoursière, in Montreal, the Italian Mafia has used art dealers to launder money, faking provenances with ‘dead owners’ from exclusive neighborhoods such as Westmont, adjacent to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

If it was the Mafia, Lacoursière said that the police won’t know until a boss dies or the paintings are found in Costa Rica, a favorite spot for criminals of the West End gang to spend the winter. However, if paintings are in Central America, Canadian police have no rights to search the homes.

“When the Quebec police call the police in Costa Rica to ask for cooperation with a search warrant, the police there do not cooperate,” Lacoursière said.

The paintings could have even been sold through small dealers, Lacoursière speculated. Before 1985, even Christie’s and Sotheby’s did not check Interpol’s database or any other police agency for stolen art, he said.

“They could have been resold, but they have not reappeared on the open market,” Lacoursière said. “The paintings could still be in a collection. But then the owners may know the paintings are stolen and cannot be publicly sold.”

Lacoursière has tracked many leads over the years, including ‘a promising one’ from a junkie in Vancouver who knew all the information in the newspapers but was unable to answer two questions whose answers had been held back by the police. Other rumors involved a sailboat in Italy, two men from Montreal in Nice, and a tunnel in Italy – but nothing has ever led to the paintings.

Bill Bantey also speculated about the missing paintings. “There’s a theory that they (the paintings) are in South America,” Bantey said. “Don’t ask me to justify it. I’ve heard several people I respect say that.”