Fifty years after what was 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 Department of Culture, mom is the word for the Skylight Caper.
It was in the early morning hours of September 4, 1972, when three men descended from a skylight on a nylon rope on the second floor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They had chosen the only skylight that didn’t have an alarm set for it, and once inside, the armed trio quickly overpowered several of the museum’s night guards.
Blindfolded, gagged and tied up in a lecture hall on the first floor, the guards could only give the most basic descriptions – the two men they actually saw were of medium height and build, wearing ski masks and long hair. Two of the thieves spoke French and one spoke English. A fair portion of the town’s male population may fit the description.
Not surprisingly, the case quickly faded from memory, as the 1972 Labor Day weekend was particularly eventful. On Friday, September 1, three men who had been refused entry to Montreal’s Wagon Wheel, a country and western bar, set fire to the back staircase. The fire eventually consumed the entire building, killing 37 people.
The next day, Canada lost the first game of the 1972 summit series to the Soviet Union at the Montreal Forum.
And by the time news of the Skylight Caper began to hit the national news channels, international attention was drawn to the unfolding hostage crisis at the Munich Olympics, which would soon degenerate into one of the most horrific acts of terrorism the world has seen. seen
To this day, the Montreal theft—which Canadian Art magazine in 2019 called the largest in the country’s history—remains remarkably obscure.
For about half an hour, the trio went around selecting the paintings, small objects and jewelry they intended to steal. Evidence from the scene suggested to investigators that the thieves attempted to rig a pulley system to haul themselves and the valuable artwork and artifacts they stole back through the skylight. Later reports of the theft indicated that the thieves abandoned their original scheme of rollers and instead chose to use the museum’s panel van.
One of the thieves inadvertently set off the alarm on a side door leading to the street, thus 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 fled on foot. Among the stolen items are paintings by Delacroix, Jan Bruegel the Elder, Millet, Rubens and Rembrandt.
What remained was even more surprising: masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Picasso, a Renoir and a Rembrandt.
Police later concluded that what connected the stolen pieces was their size – they were all small enough to be easily stacked together.
At the time, the museum estimated it had lost $2 million in stolen property—nearly $14 million in today’s dollars. Later estimates suggest that Rembrandt himself may have been worth as much.
Only two of the stolen items have been recovered – a pendant and a painting attributed to Jan Bruegel the Elder – both during ultimately unsuccessful ransom attempts.
As the 50th anniversary approaches, Montreal police have been approached for comment on the unsolved mystery. Spokesman Annick de Repentini said the case was still considered open and offered no further comment.
But longtime art crime investigator and retired Montreal police detective Alain Lacourcière — a man whose talent for solving art crimes has earned him the nickname the Columbo of art — doesn’t believe Montreal police are actively investigating the theft because no one is familiar with the file.
Lacoursiere has also previously told both the Journal of Art Crime and Canadian Art that he believes the investigation was flawed from the start, claiming the files were mishandled and investigators gave up too early.
Although the museum’s media relations department assembled a collection of files on the case, they were reluctant to discuss it in depth. The theft is by all means complete, the paintings and objects are now the stolen property of the insurer, and the affair has dealt a nasty blow to the museum’s prestige and collection.
“Any theft of a work of art is a tragedy because it deprives society of the benefits of art and knowledge,” Maud Beland, the museum’s media relations officer, said in an email. “Sure, we’d love to have them back!” Unfortunately, we have no new information.’
When contacted by The Canadian Press for comment on the anniversary of the theft, spokespeople for representatives at three levels of government declined to comment.
The Skylight Caper is unique among high-profile art heists in that the value of the paintings is inflated and deflated. After the Bruegel was returned unharmed in a show of goodwill during the ransom negotiations, it was reassessed by a prominent art historian and it was decided that it was unlikely to have been painted by the great master.
A subsequent review of the museum’s files on the stolen paintings, as reported in the Journal of Art Crime in 2011, revealed that doubts had been cast on the authenticity and/or attribution of some seven paintings, in some cases dating back six years before the heist . Adding insult to injury, the Rubens purchased by the museum with the insurance payout was also later determined to be misattributed.
What appeared to be the biggest breakthrough in the case came some 30 years after the theft at a small art gallery in Montreal’s east end. Lacoursiere struck up a conversation with a man he would later name Smith, who seemed to know everything about the case, including details not known to the public.
The man was an avid art collector, independently wealthy, and an art student in Montreal in 1972. “Smith” indicated that he may have been part of a group of art students suspected by Montreal police in the weeks following the theft.
At one point, Lacoursiere showed up at the man’s home and asked him — perhaps hoping to scare him off — where in his backyard they should start digging. “Smith” just laughed.
Lacoursiere says the man he identified as Smith died in 2017 or 2018.
“He was definitely well aware of the details of the theft,” Lacourcière said in an email exchange, “but I think it was either from newspapers or friends.”
The retired detective has spent much of his career investigating the case, but still has no clear idea of what happened to the paintings, other than the hope that they still exist somewhere.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 4, 2022.