50 Years After Massive Montreal Art Theft, Trail Is Sober, Nobody Speaks


[Montreal]Fifty years after Canada’s largest art heist, the identity of the perpetrator remains a mystery, and no one wants to talk about it.

From Montreal police to robbed museums, Canadian Heritage to Quebec Culture Department, skylight capers are mama’s words.

Early in the morning of September 4, 1972, three men rappelled down a nylon rope through a skylight to the second floor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They chose one of his skylights, which had no alarms set, and once inside, his trio of armed men quickly overpowered the museum’s several overnight guards.

Blindfolded, gagged, and restrained in a ground-floor auditorium, the guards could only give the most basic explanations. His two men they actually saw were of average height and build, wore ski masks, and had long hair. Two of his thieves spoke French and one spoke English. A significant portion of the city’s male population fits this description.

Labor Day weekend in 1972 was particularly eventful, so it’s no surprise that the incident faded from memory so quickly. On Friday, Sept. 1, three of his men, who were denied entry to his Wagon Wheel, a rural and western bar in Montreal, set the rear staircase on fire. The flames eventually consumed the entire building and killed 37 people.

The next day, Canada lost to the Soviet Union in the opening game of the 1972 Summit Series at the Montreal Forum.

By the time news of the Skylight incident began to circulate on newswires across the country, international attention was focused on the development of the hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics.

To this day, the Montreal robbery, which Canadian Art magazine called in 2019 the biggest in the country’s history, remains very obscure.

For about 30 minutes, the three hunted for paintings, trinkets, and jewelry they intended to steal. Evidence from the scene suggested to investigators that the thieves outfitted themselves with a pulley system to attempt to pull themselves and the stolen valuable art and craft back through the skylights. Subsequent reports of the theft indicate that the thief abandoned his original pulley plan, opting instead to use the museum’s panel van.

One of the thieves accidentally activated the alarm on the side door leading to the street.

Investigators later determined that the thieves panicked, grabbed what they could carry (18 paintings and 39 small items), and fled on foot. Among the stolen items were paintings by Delacroix, Jan Bruegel, Millet, Rubens and Rembrandt.

What was left was even more amazing. Masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Picasso, Renoir and Rembrandt.

Police later concluded that it was their size that tied the stolen pieces together. Everything was small enough to stack easily.

At the time, the museum estimated that it lost $2 million in stolen goods ($14 million in today’s value). Subsequent estimates indicated that Rembrandt alone might have been worth it.

Only two of the stolen items have ever been recovered. A pendant and a painting attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder.

As the 50th anniversary approached, Montreal police were asked to comment on an unsolved mystery. Spokesperson Anik de Repentigny said the case is still believed to be open and would not provide further comment.

But Alain Lacrucière, a longtime art crimes investigator and former Montreal police detective — dubbed the Colombo of arts for his talent for solving art crimes — says Montreal police are actively investigating the theft. I don’t believe that. File.

Lacousière previously told both the Journal of Art Crime and Canadian Art that the investigation was flawed from the start, that the files were mishandled and that investigators gave up too soon.

The museum’s media relations department compiled a series of files on the case, but was reluctant to discuss it in depth. It was stolen property, and the incident dealt an embarrassing blow to the museum’s reputation and collection.

“Art theft is a tragedy that deprives society of the benefits of art and knowledge,” Maud Verand, the museum’s media relations officer, said in an email. “Of course we want them back! Unfortunately, we have no new information.”

When the Canadian Press asked for comment on the anniversary of the theft, spokespersons for three levels of government declined all comment.

Skylight Caper is unique among high-profile art thefts, as the value of the painting has increased or decreased. After showing good faith and being returned intact during ransom negotiations, Brueghel was re-evaluated by a prominent art historian who determined that it was unlikely to have been painted by a great master.

As reported in the Journal of Art Crime in 2011, a subsequent review of the museum’s files on the stolen paintings confirmed the authenticity and/or of about seven paintings, dating in some cases six years before the robbery. Adding insult to injury, Rubens, which the museum bought with insurance money, was also later determined to have been misattributed.

What seemed like the biggest break in the case came nearly 30 years after the theft of a small art gallery on the eastern edge of Montreal. Lacousière later struck up a conversation with a man he nicknamed Smith. He seemed to know everything about the case, including details not generally known to the public.

This man was an avid art collector, independent and wealthy, and was an art student in Montreal in 1972. “Smith” suggested he may have been part of a group of art students suspected by Montreal police in the weeks after the theft.

Lacousière showed up at the man’s house at one point, hoping to get him out, presumably.I asked him where to start digging in the backyard.

Lacousière says the man he named Smith died in 2017 or 2018.

“He was certainly familiar with the details of the theft,” Lacrucière said in an email exchange.

The retired detective has spent most of his career investigating cases, but still has no clear idea of ​​what happened to the painting, except for hope that it still exists somewhere. Is not.

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