In the few days between the deadly arson at Montreal Blue Bird Café and the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1974, three thieves entered the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through a skylight. They stole artwork valued, at that time, for more than two million dollars.
The horrors of the arson and the deaths of the Olympic athletes understandably overshadowed the art thefts even though this wasn’t only the largest art theft but the largest theft of any kind in Montreal’s history.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), also known by its French name, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, is Canada’s oldest and largest museum. It was founded in 1860 by Francis Fulford, an Anglican bishop.
|Montreal Museum of Fine Art
At the time of the theft, the skylight was covered with plastic and its alarm disabled because of renovations going on at the museum.
Sometime after midnight on September 4, 1972, the thieves climbed onto the roof then slid down a rope they dropped through the skylight. They tied up the guards, gathered their loot, then realized their initial plan to go back out through the skylight using a complicated pulley system was impractical. Eventually, they went out a side door and set off an alarm.
Not that the alarm stopped them. The unidentified thieves got away with eighteen paintings and thirty-eight other pieces that included jewelry and figurines.
Since the thieves have never been caught, it’s unclear if they knew about the lapse in security ahead of time. Was it an inside job? Or was the Montreal Mafia or Quebec separatists behind the theft? Maybe the thieves were students from the nearby École des beaux-arts de Montréal.
These are a few of the theories considered by the police, but their investigations didn’t lead to any arrests. One stolen work, Brueghel’s Landscape with Buildings and Wagon, was returned as part of a ransom negotiation that went nowhere. But none of the other stolen items have been recovered.
The case files were scheduled to be shredded in 1984 when Alain Lacoursière, an art-theft specialist with the Montreal police, took over the investigation. He eventually came in contact with an anonymous informant, known to Lacoursière only as Smith, who may know more about the theft than he ever revealed to the investigator.
In 2011, the mysterious Smith sent an email to Lacoursière, by then retired, with a link to a Mercedes-Benz advertisement from Hong Kong. In the video:
“bank robbers steal a briefcase from a bank vault, then escape in a Mercedes. They elude capture but leave the briefcase behind; inside is a long-lost stolen da Vinci painting” (Sezgin).
The most valuable painting taken by the thieves is Rembrandt's Landscape with Cottages. Valued at $1 million at the time, the painting is now estimated to be worth more than twenty times that.
|Rembrandt's Landscape with Cottages
If only investigators knew where to find it!
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Sezgin, Catherine Schofield (May 20, 2011). "Part Two: Alain Lacoursière, the Mercedes-Benz Commercial Video, and Madonna and the Yarnwinder". ARCAblog. Retrieved August 30, 2017.