art heist | The McGill Tribune
An ominous spirit fell on Montreal in the wee hours of September 4, 1972. The city was in a state of despair as the public mourned the
of 37 Wagon Wheel club enthusiasts in an excruciating fire. Few have celebrated the
Montreal Expos victory
on the cardinals of Saint-Louis. the
On this week’s Canadian charts was “Alone Again,” a morbid ballad composed by Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan. Meanwhile, three thieves were preparing to carry out the largest artistic heist in Canadian history just blocks from the downtown McGill campus.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is known today to be a world-renowned institution and “Instagram hotspot,” but on this Monday morning of 72, it was the target of an elaborate raid. The attack was no ordinary crime according to detectives. It appears to have been scripted by the thieves as if they were characters from an Agatha Christie novel. The later nicknamed
entered the building by sliding a nylon rope through an open skylight. After firing two shots, they tied up and gagged several guards and raced down Sherbrooke with dozens of precious works of art in hand.
Catherine Schofield is the author of a complete document
who analyzes the crime. Schofield is a journalist and a graduate of the
ARCA Masters Program
in International Art Crime Studies, and freelance writer for the
Blog of the Association for Research on Crimes Against Art. Schofield spoke to many people linked to the crime, including witnesses to the aftermath of the heist, many of whom are now deceased. She spoke to The McGill Tribune with a great passion for the events of September 4, 1972, from an unknown location in the state of California.
“I am a mystery buff [….] I just prefer artistic crimes to murder, ”said Schofield. “I had the chance to speak with Bill Bantey before his death [….] [He] was an experienced journalist who understood crime and politics in Montreal and was the director of public relations at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He was one of the Museum’s first employees when the theft was reported.
Bantey gave a possible explanation for how the thieves might have entered through the skylight, stating that construction was taking place on the skylight at the time of the theft. Schofield agreed with this theory and added additional information.
“I think the construction crew silenced the alarm,” Schofield said.
the Wall Street newspaper90% of museum break-ins involve people with ties to the institution – when asked if that fact made Bantey a suspect, Schofield responded with a resounding ‘no’. She had even dined with him at his house and viewed his private art collection.
Maude N. Bélan, media relations officer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), said the museum discovered new information about the mechanics of theft after reviewing its archive of annual reports.
“Shortly after midnight, a man reached the roof of the museum and lowered a ladder for two men who were waiting below,” Belan wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “They then entered the museum through a skylight. It appears that this was a repair process and the alarm has been disabled. ”
Bélan’s account in the museum’s archives did not match Bantey’s theory that construction workers had interfered with the alarm system.
on the robbery in The Journal of Art Crime is consistent with the MMFA’s recollection of three unidentified men reaching the roof via a ladder. His article also reveals that the thieves met on Sherbrooke Street, just outside the main museum building, and then made their way to the west wall of the museum. There, one of the thieves used electrician’s boots with spikes on the toes to climb a tree, eventually jumping from the tree to the roof of the museum. From there he lowered a construction ladder to his accomplices.
The trio then began their journey to the chosen skylight. In theory, if someone tried to recreate the route taken, they would find a perfectly sealed skylight. Comparison of Google Earth imagery of the skylight today to Montreal Gazette Photo from 1972 of the roof of the museum by the journalist Jean-Pierre Rivest, it is clear that the museum no longer has easy entry points. However, the museum still has an extensive collection of skylights – perhaps an unknown tribute to the public of a crime that rocked its community.
Roof of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts building in 1972. X marks the spot where art thieves entered (Jean-Pierre Rivest / The Montreal Gazette)
Current roof of the 2021 Montreal Museum of Fine Arts building (Google Earth Images)
According to an article published in Press, once the thieves reached the skylight, they opened it and slipped on a 15-meter nylon rope to enter the museum. An article in Montreal-Matin describes the events according to the testimonies of security guards. A guard recalled that the thieves ordered him to lie on his stomach as he made his way to the kitchen for tea.
Alain Lacoursière, a detective who investigated the heist, is nicknamed the “Art columbo“due to his unusual search methods. According to Schofield, Lacoursière was one of the few to review the original police file. Lacoursière used this information to
dozens of possible leads – some leading him to a sailboat in Italy, a French art student in Montreal and a vagabond in Vancouver. However, none of the leads have ever come to fruition and the identity of the thieves has yet to be confirmed. The McGill Tribune contacted Lacoursière for comment, but said he had been retired for 10 years and was no longer aware of the details of the case.
In a previous interview, Lacoursière said he discovered that one of the thieves took the 12-pump shotgun they were carrying and shot twice in the ceiling. This act was in response to the security guard not moving at the desired pace.
According to Gazette Reporting the event, the three security guards on duty that night were tied up, gagged and brought to the first floor. Sitting in forced silence, the guards watched as thieves stole millions of dollars in paintings and jewelry of their choice. Their rampage did not last long, however.
“All of the alarms in the three-story museum operate on separate circuits,” said Luana Parker, a Montreal Gazette reporter, wrote: “When one of the burglars accidentally triggered the side entry alarm while exiting with the first load, the men fled, taking what they could.
An original MMFA report from their archives that cataloged the exact stolen art reveals a 17th century Spanish gold cross, a Rembrandt painting valued at over a million dollars and a small collection of 18th century French paintings and nineteenth centuries were among the stolen pieces. The thieves stole 55 coins in total, forcing police to scramble to find leads in the days following the robbery.
The MMFA director at the time, David Giles Carter, received a direct call from one of the thieves, who said he would prove he had the stolen coins in his possession by leaving a pendant in a specific location. . The location
was a phone booth on the downtown campus of McGill University. According to Schofield, this phone booth was most likely across from the Redpath Museum.
When Carter arrived at McGill University, he
the pendant and a brown envelope containing photos of the other stolen coins. With the exchange confirming that the appellant was not bluffing, negotiations between the museum and the unidentified thieves began. The ransom talks were very
volatile, after a deceptive operation attempt to catch thieves went awry, communications ceased. None of the stolen parts were found except for half of an unidentified painting
to La Presse and half-posted to The Star. Even Detective Lacoursière’s $ 1 million offer in 1999 turned out to be empty-handed.
When I asked the question, Béland explained to me that the museum’s security system has improved considerably over the past 48 years.
The updated security system, however, is still not foolproof. On September 3, 2011, exactly one day before the 39th anniversary of the original robbery, an unidentified thief
a relief of the Achaemenid Empire of the fifth century BC, valued at over a million dollars. The piece was later discovered during an interview with a horticulturalist in the background among a collection of Star Wars
figurines. After identifying the culprit, prosecutors at the New York County District Attorney’s Office
relief. Regardless of the artefact’s recovery, the 2011 robbery continued to steal from one of the best institutions in Montreal.