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The mystery of the skylight art heist


 Photo by Benoit Brouillette licensed CC BY 2.0

Do you know what a heist is? It's another word for a robbery. Believe it or not, Canada is home to one of the most mysterious art heists in the world! Think you can be a detective and solve the case? Well here are the clues…

Stolen art worth millions!

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
By Thomas licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Just after midnight on September 4th, 1972, three thieves snuck into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The doors were locked but the thieves climbed up to the roof and lowered themselves inside on a rope through a skylight. What happened next is totally unbelievable! The thieves managed to tie up the night security guards and escape with 18 paintings and 39 other jewelry and silver worth $11.7 million dollars in just 30 minutes! By the time the Montreal Police arrived, the thieves were long gone and never seen again.

The police investigation

Jan Davidsz van Heem’s Still Life: Vanitas was one of the paintings that were stolen.
Jan Davidsz van Heem's "Still Life: Vanitas" is one of the stolen paintings. Jan Davidsz de Heem licensed public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thieves demanded a ransom for the stolen art. That means they agreed to return it but only if the police gave them lots and lots of money. How rude! But who were the masked thieves? The security guards never saw their faces and police didn’t have many suspects. They questioned art students, museum staff and even a mysterious man known only as “Smith” but all their leads were dead ends.

The sting operation

Montreal police car circa 1975.
Police vehicle circa 1975. Photo by Benoit Brouillette licensed CC BY 2.0

Montreal Police decided to try a ‘sting operation.’ Ever heard of it? It’s a super secret technique where police go undercover to catch a criminal. This can mean pretending to be a criminal too! A sting operation can last days, weeks or even months! In this case, police pretended to be people who wanted to buy the stolen art illegally and even arranged to meet up with the thieves. But when the time came, the thieves never showed up. Maybe they knew it was a trap!

A cold case

Landscape with Cottages by Rembrandt.
"Landscape with Cottages" by Rembrandt is the most valuable of the stolen works, and hasn’t been seen in 46 years. Rembrandt licensed public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After years of investigating, the case went cold. That means that police couldn’t solve the crime. But we sure hope someone cracks the case of the mysterious skylight art heist one day! The stolen art should be back in the art gallery where it belongs.