Two art robberies 50 years apart: expert says Canada an ‘easy target’
We don’t know how they did it: was it a clandestine operation, carried out under the cloak of darkness? An elaborate ruse, designed to fool onlookers? Or something else?
Either way, it’s clear that those who stole a world famous portrait of Sir Winston Churchill from the Chateau Laurier planned the heist meticulously.
It took more than eight months for anyone to realize that the picture hanging on the paneled walls of the Reading Lounge was a fake.
“It was very premeditated,” said Bonnie Czegledi, an Ontario lawyer specializing in international art and cultural heritage law.
Art break-ins come as no surprise to Czegledi, but she was surprised to learn that this portrait was stolen, “because the subject matter is so specific.”
Even those who have spent decades studying Churchill’s legacy are baffled.
Historian Andrew Roberts, who wrote a biography of the former British prime minister, called it a “rather bizarre story”.
“It’s not a Picasso,” said Ron Cohen, president of the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Ottawa.
“Having said that, I believe it’s probably the most famous photograph ever taken by a political individual. I think it’s an extraordinary piece.”
The portrait has a significant connection to the Château Laurier itself. The photographer, Yousuf Karsh, lived in the hotel for 18 years. It housed his workshop for 20 years.
When Churchill delivered a wartime speech to the Parliament of Canada in 1941, then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King asked Karsh to take his portrait.
The resulting image of Churchill standing with one hand on a chair, another on his waist, scowling at the camera, captured the mood of the Allied nations. He looks defiant and determined.
Researchers say the photo bolstered Allied resolve.
The Karsh estate says the photographer’s entire portfolio of 350,000 prints and negatives was turned over to Library and Archives Canada upon his death in 1992, and no further copies were to be made.
Yet it’s not the only extant copy – it’s not even the only original.
Sotheby’s in London had one at auction in 2020, worth between $20,000 and $26,000. The auction house declined to disclose the final price.
The Rideau Club in Ottawa has another in its Churchill Room.
Another hangs in the Speaker’s bedroom, near where it was taken.
Richard Langworth, senior fellow at the Hillsdale College Churchill Project in New Hampshire, said he couldn’t understand what was “so singular” about this particular portrait.
“Why bother?” he said. “And then to replace it with a fake one?”
Several experts believe the thieves had a specific buyer in mind.
“It’s the business model of organized crime,” Czegledi said.
Photos taken by guests allowed hotel management to narrow down the timing of the theft to a 12-day period between Christmas Day and January 6.
No surprises there, Czegledi said.
“Holidays like Christmas and New Years present a very high risk of art crime and art theft because people are preoccupied with other things.”
The story has captured the imagination of many people around the world.
Almost 50 years after Skylight Caper
It’s not every day that an artwork heist occurs at one of the most notorious buildings in the nation’s capital.
Curiously, the timing of its discovery last week is almost 50 years after the largest art heist in Canadian history in Montreal.
Known as the Skylight Caper, the story reads like a movie script.
On September 4, 1972, a man climbed a tree near the Museum of Fine Arts in the middle of the night. He lowered a ladder from the roof to two others, who headed for a skylight being repaired.
A disabled security system allowed them to open the skylight, drop a 15-meter-long rope inside, and descend to the second floor.
They bound and gagged three security guards, with one robber holding them at gunpoint while the others marched through the museum and collected 55 pieces. Among them were 17 paintings, including a Rembrandt.
“A spokesperson for the museum (at the time) said they had very discerning tastes,” Czegledi said.
What follows is equally theatrical: a ransom demand, including an envelope full of photos sent as proof of possession to the museum director; the return of a stolen medallion, left in a telephone booth; the return of a painting by Breughel the Elder, deposited in a station locker; and plans for a secret rendezvous with the thieves.
In the end, nothing more was recovered and no one was arrested.
“The problem is that the beauty of these objects takes away the seriousness of the crime,” Czegledi said.
“There’s this preconception that it’s just fluff, but it’s not. This is serious business.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement that art trafficking “has evolved from a cultural problem to a problem of transnational organized crime and a source of funding for terrorist groups”.
“It can be considered a matter of national security,” Czegledi said. “We see terrorists and organized crime diversifying their portfolio into the art world.”
Canada does not keep specific statistics on art theft, but rather lumps it together with all other forms of property theft.
Czegledi said that amounts to a misunderstanding of both the scale of the problem and the intangible value of art.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a specially trained unit dedicated to art theft. The only place in Canada with something similar is Quebec, which created its own unit in 2008.
Canada an “easy target”
Canada does not have specific anti-money laundering laws for art, unlike the UK
Czegledi said a stronger investigation and prosecution would go a long way, as would sentencing guidelines for judges who may not understand the art world.
“Because of the atmosphere here, we are an easy target.”
Canada has signed a United Nations convention prohibiting the import of cultural property illegally exported from another state party to the convention.
But the United States requires separate agreements with individual countries regulating the movement of cultural property. It has agreements with more than two dozen countries. The agreement with Canada expired two decades ago.
“A request from Canada for renewal of the agreement when it expires in 2002 was unsuccessful,” a Canadian Heritage spokesperson said, adding that law enforcement is working together on an ad hoc basis.
Czegledi said it was tragic that art theft continues. “How many lessons do we need to have, to learn?”