Ottawa

Crowd-sourced detective work narrows window for disappearance of Winston Churchill portrait

Thanks to a sleuthing public, the Château Laurier has announced that a famed portrait of Winston Churchill appears to have been taken off the hotel's walls this past winter, during a span of a week and a half over the holidays.

Stolen art recovered less than 5 % of the time, art recovery expert says

As of Tuesday, CBC’s Washington correspondent Paul Hunter had submitted the first known photo of the fake, taken on Jan. 6, 2022. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Thanks to a sleuthing public, the Château Laurier has announced that a famed portrait of Winston Churchill appears to have been taken off the hotel's walls this past winter, during a span of a week and a half over the holidays.

After news of the theft broke on Monday, people started sending the hotel pictures they had snapped of the print signed by famed Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh, according to Geneviève Dumas, general manager of the Fairmont hotel in downtown Ottawa.

"It was something very dear to the people of Ottawa's heart, the Karsh Winston Churchill portrait. Everybody was so kind in sending us all kinds of pictures and information they could share with us, which helped us," Dumas said.

As of Tuesday, the most recent submitted photo of the real portrait was taken on Dec. 25, 2021, and CBC's Washington correspondent Paul Hunter took the first known photo of the fake on Jan. 6 this year.

WATCH | Hotel appeals for help

Château Laurier appeals for public’s help in case of missing Winston Churchill portrait

3 months ago
Duration 1:19
Geneviève Dumas, general manager at the Château Laurier, says staff have been able to narrow down exactly when the original portrait was stolen thanks to photos sent in by the public. Now she’s hoping someone will come forward with information that leads to the recovery of the image.

People love an art heist, and have been sharing ideas of where the portrait might be.

But the mystery isn't solved yet.

Anyone who may have seen something fishy last Christmas, or who might have photos taken between Dec. 25, 2021, and Jan. 6, 2022, is encouraged to contact the hotel, Dumas said.

Geneviève Dumas, general manager of the Fairmont Château Laurier, is asking anyone who may have photos taken between Dec. 25, 2021, and Jan. 6, 2022, to contact the hotel. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Don't romanticize art heists, recoverer says

While the interest seems to be helping the investigation, a man who recovers stolen art for a living wants to crush any idea that art thefts make good heist movies.

"It's not romantic, it's not exciting, and it shouldn't be," said Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and CEO of Art Recovery International.

"I treat art criminals as common thugs, as heartless, faceless, evil criminals just looking to make money at the expense of all of us," he said. "They are taking away artwork that belongs to all of us to enjoy."

Marinello said it's also wrong to imagine the thief as a lover of Winston Churchill or portrait photography. Instead, they should be understood as simply having done their research on the value of the print.

Another print of the Churchill portrait sold two years ago at Sotheby's for $81,000, Marinello said, and it doesn't boast the same history as the hotel print.

Christopher Marinello, CEO of Art Recovery International, said he took on a number of stolen art cases in Canada in the past year. (Submitted by Christopher Marinello)

Karsh and his first wife lived at the Château Laurier for 18 years and his studio was housed there until 1992, a connection that makes the hotel's print of The Roaring Lion portrait more valuable, Marinello said.

He suggested it might be worth more than $100,000. 

Marinello also balked at the idea that stealing art can increase its value. While the theft of the Mona Lisa increased its reputation, it didn't go beyond that, he said.

"I would never say that stealing something is going to increase in value because criminals are horrid with artworks. I mean, I've worked on cases where $6-million paintings were reduced to $1 million because they rolled it the wrong way."

Art rarely recovered

Art Recovery International is brought into many investigations after police have finished theirs, often by an insurance company, but less than 5 per cent of stolen art is ever returned, Marinello said.

It's a common type of theft, and he said he's worked a number of other Canadian cases in the past year alone. 

But just how common is hard to say, according to international art and cultural heritage lawyer Bonnie Czegledi.

Unlike other countries, she said Canada doesn't have a dedicated task force — such as the FBI's art crime unit — focused solely on finding stolen art.

"Americans and other countries take this seriously because we now know that art theft and cultural heritage theft is funding terrorism," she told CBC Radio's All In A Day

Canada also doesn't keep statistics on what kind of art is stolen, how often and who is targeted, all of which could help identify trends and help prevent future thefts, Czegledi said. 

LISTEN | How often is art stolen?

International art and cultural heritage lawyer Bonnie Czegledi talks to us about the frequency of art thefts in Canada

Check copy places near hotel, expert suggests

It's likely that Château Laurier staff are combing through guest logs and making notes of disgruntled former employees, Marinello said. 

The thief could have tried to sell the print immediately after taking it, either online or through an auction house, and he suggested checking in at nearby shops that offer copying services to see if anyone remembers making a photocopy.

Since the signed print is one of a number in existence, Marinello said there's a good chance the seller would get away with offloading it at auction.

Auction houses are in the business of making money, he said, and while some have whole departments devoted to tracing the lineage of artworks, others perform no due diligence.

And even if it is found, there could be other barriers to the hotel getting the print back. 

"You are next to a very unusual province in Canada that I find extremely frustrating for the work that I do," Marinello said.

Quebec law entitles owners of art who purchased it without knowing it was stolen to keep it or negotiate a settlement for its return. That isn't the case in the rest of Canada, Marinello said.

The Ottawa police investigation continues, and the force told CBC it has assigned investigators to the case.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Frizzell

News producer

Sara Frizzell is a reporter with CBC Ottawa. Previously, she worked as the news producer at CBC Nunavut. She's worked in radio, podcasting and longform journalism since graduating from Carleton University's journalism program in 2013. Contact her at sara.frizzell@cbc.ca

With files from Matthew Kupfer and CBC Radio's All In A Day

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