Part VIII: The theft today

Most people have forgotten about the museum theft, according to Bill Bantey. “Everyone forgot abut the theft except for the insurance companies,” Bantey said. “Like a death in the family, you have to let it drop.”

Paul Lavallée, current administrative director for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2009, said in an interview for this article that the 1972 theft was significant and continues to have an impact on the museum. “This is a collector’s museum,” Lavallée said. “We do not have the funds to purchase comparable paintings at current market prices. Even if the paintings were recovered and the insurance company were to offer the paintings to the museum for less than market prices, we would be strapped for funds to recover the paintings.”

Sir William Van Horne, builder of the transcontinental railroad in Canada, purchased Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages, also known as Evening Landscape with Cottages or The Farm. Widely shown in the US and Canada, the small oil on wood panel was given to the museum by his daughter, Adalene Van Horne, who lived in a mansion within walking distance of the museum. The stolen Rembrandt and Delacroix’s Lionness and lion in a cave were two of about 60 paintings bequeathed by Adalene Van Horne in 1945. Lady Davis, the former wife of a tobacco baron, had donated François-André Vincent’s portraits of a man and a woman. Miss Olive Hosmer, whose family long supported the museum, bequeathed Jean-François Millet’s signed portrait of his first wife who died after only a few years of marriage; Thomas Gainsborough’s 1763 Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Thomas Fletcher; and Corot’s Juene fille accoudée sur le bras gauche. Lady Allan, wife of H. Montagu Allan, a banker and ship owner, gave the museum in 1958 Gustave Courbet’s Landscape with Rocks and Stream, painted the year he fled to Switzerland after the fall of the Paris Commune and the judgment against him to fund the rebuilding of the Vendôme Column in Paris.

Valuing the paintings today

The museum was paid almost $2 million for the stolen paintings through the insurance companies. The Ruben’s masterpiece purchased with the majority of those funds has been relegated to the basement as an inferior work, although the museum engaged the services of a top Rubens scholar to purchase it in 1975.  However, according to the museum’s dossiers on the stolen paintings, Rubens’s The Leopards may not be the only painting that would be reattributed today. In the years before the theft, some paintings had been through the conservation lab in preparation for the traveling exhibition, Masterpieces from Montreal, and scrutinized for the exhibition catalogue.

Responding to a 1966 inquiry from the museum, a Parisian art historian opined that the two paintings attributed to Jan Davidsz de Heem, an influential 17th century Utrecht painter, had been executed by another great Master (Collier). Still Life with a Fish was the only one of the two “de Heem” paintings included in the exhibition Masterpieces from Montreal. Even then, a conservator noted that the varnish was “excessively cracked”. However, the painting was still identified in the catalogue as the work of de Heem. Marguerite Claire Stephens bequeathed Still Life with a fish to the museum in 1939. Still Life: Vanitas had been purchased by Sir William Van Horne, the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, before 1914 when he was dealing with an unscrupulous dealer in New York, Leo Nardus, who misattributed many paintings as the works of pricier Old Master artists.

Doubt was cast on the authenticity of another painting from the Van Horne collection. Rembrandt’s Landscape with cottages is signed and dated, Rembrandt 1654. The painting’s museum dossier included a page copied from a book on Rembrandt’s work, one originally compiled by A. Bredius and revised in 1969 by Horst Gerson, Professor at the University of Groningen. Under Evening Landscape with Cottage, another published name for the work, the author wrote about the painting and its composition:
“The same spot appears repeatedly in drawings and etching by Rembrandt and his pupils ... Bredius once wrote (in a note to the first editon of Rembrandt paintings) ‘Probably all right, but it has something that alarms me.’ I have the same feeling of uneasiness.”
Rembrandt often worked outdoors with his students.

The Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Thomas Fletcher may be the work not of Gainsborough but of his rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The military uniform in the portrait is that of a colonel of a Madras regiment in 1771, according to the Company of Military Historians. Fletcher had his portrait painted by Reynolds in 1774, left England the following year, and died a year later in Mauritius.

Millet’s La baratteuse, signed by the artist in the lower left corner, was sold in Paris in 1898 and again in 1919 at the Galerie Georges Petit – the same year that the Petit held Edgar Degas’ studio sale. A different painting by Millet also called La baratteuse was purchased by les Musées Nationaux in 1886 and resides at the musée d’Orsay.

The former wife of Mortimer B. Davis, founder of Ritchie cigarettes, donated Vincent’s portraits of a man and a woman to the museum in 1964. The unsigned portraits are identified with an inscription referring to Château à Meslay, a privately owned historic home built in the 18th century in the Loire Valley. Vincent’s Portrait of a Man, according to the museum’s dossier on the painting, may be a copy of another painting by François-André Vincent, Portrait of Monsieur Baillon, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam since 1958.

A current valuation on the stolen paintings would have to consider these doubts and is outside the scope of this article. However, a London sale in June of 2010 is an anecdotal valuation for one of the paintings.  Sotheby’s sold Jeune femme à la fontaine, a painting similar to Corot’s The Dreamer at the Fountain (La rêveuse à la fontaine) for more than 1.6 million pounds to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva. Both paintings were from a series of Italian peasant girls painted decades after the artist’s trips to Italy from the 1820s to the 1840s.

Analysis and Conclusion

Creating a portrait of a museum theft based only upon published articles and the decades-old memories of participants and one-time investigators provides contradictions that can only be resolved more satisfactorily by looking at the original police files which are closely guarded by police officials who hope to use some information to determine the viability of future leads.

In 1972, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts may have become the target of a major theft after widely identifying its “masterpieces” through traveling exhibitions and published catalogues. The 60-year-old museum building became penetrable when the alarm securing the skylight was disarmed by a construction tarp during a repair on the roof. An aging building and strapped funds weakened the defenses of the museum to rappel thieves. The motive appears to have been ransom or the underground sale of the paintings, as the works have not been seen in public for more than four decades. The investigation did not lead police or the insurance company to any individuals arrested for the robbery or to the location of the stolen paintings and objects. The Montreal treasures could have been stolen by an international art ring, local thieves, or by disgruntled art students but until the paintings are found or someone chooses to come forward with the story, the complete picture of this museum robbery remains blurry.