Fifty years after a major art theft in Montreal, the trail has gone cold and no one is talking

Fifty years after what has been described as the biggest art heist in Canadian history, the identity of the thieves remains a mystery and no one wants to talk about it.

From the Montreal police to the art museum that was robbed, from Canadian Heritage to the Quebec Ministry of Culture, mom has the word on the Skylight Caper.

It was in the early morning hours of September 4, 1972 that three men abseiled from a skylight along a nylon rope to the second floor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They had chosen the only skylight for which the alarm had not been set, and once inside, the armed trio quickly overpowered the museum’s few night guards.

Blindfolded, gagged and bound in a first-floor conference room, guards could only provide the most basic descriptions – the two men they actually saw were of average height and build, wearing ski masks and had long hair. Two of the thieves spoke French and one spoke English. A good portion of the city’s male population could fit the description.

It’s not entirely surprising that the case quickly faded from memory, as Labor Day weekend of 1972 was particularly eventful. On Friday, September 1, three men who were denied entry to Montreal’s Wagon Wheel, a country and western bar, set fire to a back staircase. The fire eventually consumed the entire building, killing 37 people.

The following day, Canada lost the opening game of the 1972 Summits series to the Soviet Union at the Montreal Forum.

And by the time news of the Skylight Caper began hitting national newswires, international attention had been drawn to the Munich Olympics hostage crisis, which would soon escalate into one of the most serious acts of terrorism. more appalling than the world has ever seen.

To this day, the Montreal theft – which Canadian Art magazine in 2019 called the most significant in the country’s history – remains remarkably obscure.

For about half an hour, the trio set about selecting the paintings, small objects and jewelry they intended to steal. Evidence from the scene suggested to investigators that the thieves had attempted to rig a pulley system to transport themselves, and the valuable art and artifacts they had stolen, through the skylight. Later reports of the theft indicated that the thieves had abandoned their initial pulley system and opted to use the museum’s van instead.

One of the thieves inadvertently triggered the alarm on a side door facing the street, eliminating the suspicion that it was an inside job.

Investigators later determined that the thieves panicked, grabbed what they could carry – 18 paintings and 39 small items – and walked away. Among the items stolen were paintings by Delacroix, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Millet, Rubens and Rembrandt.

What remained was even more surprising: masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Picasso, a Renoir and another Rembrandt.

Police later concluded that what connected the stolen pieces was their size – all were small enough to be easily stacked together.

At the time, the museum estimated that it had lost $2 million in stolen property, or nearly $14 million in today’s dollars. Later estimates indicated that the Rembrandt alone may have been worth as much.

Only two of the stolen items have been recovered – a pendant and a painting attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder – both in ultimately failed ransom efforts.

As the 50th anniversary approaches, the Montreal Police Department has been asked to comment on the unsolved mystery. Spokeswoman Anik de Repentigny said the matter was still considered open and had no further comment.

But Alain Lacoursière, a longtime art crime investigator and retired Montreal police detective – a man whose knack for solving art crimes has earned him the nickname Columbo of art – doesn’t do not believe that the Montreal police are actively investigating the theft because no one knows about the file.

Lacoursière also told the Journal of Art Crime and Canadian Art that he believed the investigation was flawed from the start, alleging the files were mishandled and investigators gave up too soon.

Although the museum’s media relations department had amassed a collection of files on the case, they were reluctant to discuss it in depth. The theft is virtually a done deal, the paintings and objects are now the stolen property of the insurer and the case has dealt an embarrassing blow to the museum’s prestige and collection.

“Any art theft is a tragedy because it deprives society of the benefits of art and knowledge,” said Maude Béland, media relations officer for the museum, in an email. “Of course, we would love to see them again! Unfortunately, we have no new information.

When contacted by The Canadian Press for comment on the anniversary of the flight, spokespersons for representatives at three levels of government declined to comment.

The Skylight Caper is unique among high-profile art thefts because the paintings both rose and fell in value. After the Brueghel was rendered unscathed in a show of good faith during ransom negotiations, it was reassessed by a prominent art historian and determined it was unlikely to have been painted by the grand master. .

A subsequent review of museum files on stolen paintings, as reported in the Journal of Art Crime in 2011, revealed that doubts had been cast over the authenticity and/or attribution of approximately seven paintings, dating in some cases six years before the heist. . Adding insult to injury, a Rubens purchased by the museum with the insurance payment was also later determined to be misattributed.

What seemed to be the biggest break in the case came about 30 years after the robbery at a small art gallery in east Montreal. Lacoursière struck up a conversation with a man he later nicknamed Smith who seemed to know everything about the case, including details not usually known to the public.

The man was an avid art collector, independently wealthy and had been an art student in Montreal in 1972. “Smith” indicated that he may have been part of a group of art students suspected by the Montreal police in the weeks following the theft.

Lacoursière at one point showed up at the man’s house and asked him – perhaps hoping to push him away – where in his backyard they should start digging. “Smith” just laughed.

Lacoursière says the man he nicknamed Smith died in 2017 or 2018.

“He certainly knew the details of the theft well,” Lacoursière said in an email exchange, “but I think it either came from the papers or from friends.”

The retired sleuth has spent much of his career investigating the case, but still has no clear idea what happened to the paintings, other than the hope that they still exist somewhere.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 4, 2022.

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