Montreal Museum of Fine Arts art heist

The greatest art heist in Canadian history happened in Montreal 50 years ago today

“On Sept. 4, 1972, three men rappelled through the skylight of the Museum of Fine Arts and stole millions of dollars of precious jewellery and priceless paintings. They escaped into the night, running down Sherbrooke Street, never to be seen again. In getting away with it, they created a mystery that may live on long after they’re gone, but the authenticity of some of the paintings they took won’t ever be confirmed unless they’re returned.”

It’s about 2 a.m., Labour Day Monday 1972. Three men are running down Sherbrooke Street, the pockets of their pants and jackets crammed with rings, pendants, snuff boxes and a pocket watch that once belonged the first mayor of Montreal’s wife. In their arms, each man carries a set of six paintings, liberated of their ornate wooden frames, stacked one atop the other. In the distance is the faint trilling of an alarm muffled by the heavy closed doors of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. All 57 of the objects in the men’s possession, except for a pendant and a painting, will never be seen again.

Fifty years ago today, three men pulled off one of the greatest crimes of all time, stealing what was then estimated to be about $2-million worth of paintings, jewellery and assorted small objects from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Fifty years later, there are no suspects, no clear indication of what happened to the jewellery, small objects and paintings stolen that night. There are also no witnesses, at least none that are known, and not many people left to interview either, most of the museum’s senior staff from the time having retired and passed away long ago. Compounding matters is that the evidence, scant as it was to begin with, was apparently poorly stored and has degraded over time, meaning that the very traces of a crime having occurred in the first place are disappearing. The most promising suspect, who in all likelihood probably wasn’t involved, passed away either in 2017 or 2018. The Montreal police won’t discuss the case even though it went cold decades ago, so there haven’t been any fresh sets of eyes to review the evidence in at least 20 years. And given that the museum’s insurers settled the claim, the paintings aren’t even the MMFA’s property anymore, but would technically belong to Lloyd’s. There’s basically no one left to talk about it, no one left to care, and the single largest art theft in Canadian history slowly slips from memory.

The early morning hours of Sept. 4, 1972, would have been cool, noticeably so, a far cry from the unseasonably high heat and humidity reported earlier that long weekend. The thieves, of slight build and sporting longish hair, made their way between the MMFA’s Hornstein Pavilion and the Church of Saint Andrew and Saint Paul, where one of the trio put on climbing spikes, the same kind used by Bell Telephone linemen, and clambered up a tree between the two institutional buildings. On the museum’s roof he knew he would find two things: a construction crew’s ladder — which he promptly lowered to his friends to ease their ascent — and a skylight window with a deliberately deactivated alarm. Reports would later reveal museum employees had seen men sitting on folding chairs on the roof of an adjacent building, smoking cigarettes in the sunshine, apparently watching the rooftop renovations carried out in the weeks preceding the theft.

Up on the roof, the thieves opened the skylight and fixed the ropes they used to rappel into the galleries of the museum’s second floor. Once securely inside the building, they were said to have walked around for about a half hour before one of the museum’s three overnight guards happened upon them. The thieves were armed — at least one had a shotgun, another may have had a revolver — and delivered a blast into the museum’s ceiling that convinced one guard to hug the floor while inadvertently summoning the others. The guards were woefully under-gunned and quickly over-powered; blindfolded, bound, gagged and led to an office adjoining the basement lecture hall. They only ever saw two of the three, and didn’t get too good of a look at them, later offering police a modestly better description of their voices than their appearance. One spoke English, two spoke French. They all understood each other and knew what they were doing.

Investigators later determined that the thieves had spent some time trying to MacGyver a pulley system using their ropes to haul stolen paintings back up through the skylight, but then abandoned this idea and decided instead to use the museum’s panel van. They likely spent about an hour pulling paintings off the walls and prying them out of their frames, in addition to selecting 39 smaller objects, much of it jewellery and other small decorative objects of greater artistic or historic value than what might be obtained at the pawn shop. Their selection of paintings included some big names like Picasso, Rembrandt and El Greco, though they also selected many from lesser known artists and obscure personal collections, paintings whose value might be more academic or historic than obvious.

As far as art thefts were concerned, this one was going remarkably well.

And then one of the thieves opened a side door, perhaps to open the museum’s panel van, and tripped the door’s alarm.

They stuffed their pockets, grabbed what they could and booked it, fleeing on foot.

The guards managed to free themselves not long after and contacted the highest ranking museum official they could think of before they called the police. A curator was the first on the scene, and noted a pile of paintings stacked up against the wall, including a Picasso, an El Greco and a Renoir, among others. The paintings that had made their way out in the hands of the thieves were later determined to all be fairly small and easy to carry, initially their only common thread.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts art heist
“Landscape With Wagon” by Jan Brueghel the Elder

The police began their investigation, noting that the summer cottage of a wealthy old anglo family had been hit just days earlier by a trio of thieves who had apparently also used rope to scale up the side of a cliff, and who apparently shared the same ethnolinguistic composition: one English, two French.

Museum officials compiled photos of the stolen items and contacted the border service and Interpol in the hopes that they could at least keep the paintings and objects somewhere close to home. It may have been the only smart move in an investigation later dismissed as thoughtless by a Montreal police detective who became obsessed with the case decades later. That the paintings and objects have never shown up on the auction block in a faraway land, and that the ransom negotiations began shortly after the theft, indicates that they may not have made it very far.  

A photograph apparently showing the paintings in fine condition made its way to the museum and police investigators. Demonstrations of good faith were made by the thieves: a 17th century pendant left in a discarded cigarette pack by a payphone outside McGill’s Roddick Gates; a painting attributed to Dutch Master Brueghel the Elder left in a locker at Central Station. The museum played hard ball, the thieves dropped their asking price, from half a million to $250,000, still a princely sum in the early 1970s.

The museum requested another painting to show the thieves were serious, and an undercover cop was sent to Longueuil, apparently to recover yet another painting. The unexpected appearance of a squad car kiboshed the hand-off, and the thieves called the museum the next day to bitch about what they perceived as a trap. There’d be no more calls from anyone claiming to be the thieves for months. 

The last apparent effort to exchange the paintings for cash came in the summer of 1973 when an anonymous caller contacted the museum and offered to provide information that would lead to the paintings in exchange for $10,000. An insurance adjuster, working on behalf of the museum, was sent on a 14-hour wild goose chase all over Montreal, following tips from payphone to payphone, before finally being told to drop the cash off under a sign in a vacant lot up in Laval. The promise of the paintings’ whereabouts went unfulfilled, and this was apparently the last effort anyone ever made to collect the stolen artworks, or information leading to them.

The police investigation didn’t get very far, as every solid lead or theory fell apart. Advance knowledge of the disarmed skylight alarm pointed towards an inside job, but accidentally tripping the side door alarm negated that possibility. The similarities between the museum heist and the theft several days earlier was later confirmed to be a mere coincidence. A suspicion that the act may have been committed by students from the École des Beaux Arts, who had a testy relationship with the old anglo ladies who ran the museum, was seriously pursued before it fell apart as well.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts art heist
“Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Robert Fletcher” by Thomas Gainsborough

The selection of paintings made little sense, with museum communications director Bill Bantey later stating that the thieves could have used some art history lessons, as they had left behind pieces more valuable than what they had stolen. But Bantey would soon eat his words.

The attention generated by the theft led a German art historian to take a closer look at the Breughel, and what he saw he didn’t like — the painting and the signature were inconsistent. The museum now indicates that the painting was from Breughel’s school, and not painted by Breughel himself. Closer examination of the museum’s files on the missing paintings revealed notes indicating the museum had questioned the authenticity of several of the artworks that were stolen. Whether the thieves knew this is impossible to tell, though the notes indicate the museum was aware of these questions of authenticity in the years before the theft.

Did the thieves know the painting they returned in a show of good faith wasn’t what it purported to be? Were they unbelievably lucky or were they trying to make a point, perhaps show they knew better?

Were the paintings tied together because they were small and easy to carry, or because they weren’t what they seemed?

Who knowingly steals fake paintings?

Who gets away with stealing fake paintings?

The museum settled its accounts with its insurers in 1975 and purchased Rubens’ The Leopards with the settlement. Nearly 20 years later, a conservationist took a closer look at the painting and determined that it too wasn’t exactly what it seemed to be. The Leopards have been in storage ever since.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts art heist
The greatest art heist in Canadian history (aka “the skylight caper”) happened in Montreal 50 years ago today

The “skylight caper” was one of several events that marked a key moment of transition in the history of the MMFA. Earlier in 1972, the museum had hosted Melvin Charney’s exhibit Montréal: plus ou moins?, a groundbreaking departure from its normal fare and anticipating Charney’s later work on the ultimately destroyed Corridart project. The exhibit caused a mild sensation chiefly because it asked Montrealers to take a closer look at all it took for granted, its major institutions first and foremost, and ask themselves whom such institutions served. That same year, the museum became partly publicly funded, beginning its transition from a private, elite, essentially charitable organization aimed to benefit the public, to becoming a taxpayer-funded institution. Within six months of the theft, the museum’s collection had been moved off site as the MMFA began its first major modern expansion, culminating in the completion of the brutalist Stewart Building three years later when it re-opened to the public, and the beginning of the MMFA’s long journey to becoming one of the city’s dominant cultural institutions and tourism destinations. The MMFA was the most visited museum in Canada in 2020, a distinction it has won many times over in recent years.

Despite this, in all of 50 years, the other 38 small objects and 17 paintings stolen in 1972 haven’t been seen — not even a suggestion, a glimpse or rumour. It’s almost as though they never existed at all, and with memories fading, people dying, records disappearing and total disinterest in the case on the part of the Montreal police, the provincial and federal governments and most of the mainstream media, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see them again. A police detective who worked the case for years and probably knows it better than anyone else told me in so many words he’s still hopeful but isn’t holding his breath. Of all the suspects whose trail he followed, he’s fairly confident the one who knew the most ultimately had nothing to do with the theft at all. Whether these paintings are buried in some guy’s backyard on the South Shore or decorating the living room of a South American drug lord — both are seemingly just as plausible a solution to the mystery as three unbelievably lucky yet fundamentally amateur thieves chucking the whole lot in the Saint Lawrence when they realized they were in way over their heads. I like to hope this isn’t the case, and that I’ll see one of the paintings hanging on the wall of a church bazaar in some sleepy Eastern Townships hamlet one day. A man can dream… ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.