By all accounts, the biggest art heist in Canadian history should’ve been even bigger. Just past midnight on September 4, 1972—fifty years ago, this month—a man in a ski mask and climbing spurs accessed the roof of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts by scaling a nearby tree. He then extended a ladder to two similarly masked robbers below. From atop the building, the trio entered the gallery by rappelling with rope through a broken skylight. Once inside, they bound and gagged the security guards at gunpoint and began ransacking the building—cracking frames, shattering vitrines—with the apparent intention of stealing everything of value. The plan, it appears, was to descend and ascend, grinch-like, through the ceiling, during what likely would have been an all-night operation.

But thirty minutes into the break-in, one of the men tripped an alarm, forcing the gang to hustle out the side door with whatever they could carry: thirty-nine items, mainly jewellery and figurines, and eighteen canvasses, including paintings attributed to Gustave Courbet, Eugène Delacroix, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Thomas Gainsborough, and Peter Paul Rubens. The most valuable piece the men took was Landscape with Cottages, a work of dark pastoralism credited to Rembrandt, master of the Dutch Golden Age. The museum initially reported that the entire haul was worth $2 million.

Perhaps more valuable still was the bounty the thieves left behind: paintings by Pablo Picasso, El Greco, Francisco Goya, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as well as an additional Rembrandt, all of which had been stacked haphazardly on the gallery floor. The heist was ambitious but clearly not as much as its participants had intended it to be.

However, if the crime was scaled down during the operation itself, it has been only further diminished in the public imagination. Compare it to the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. That theft has been fictionalized in eight novels, analysed in three television documentaries, name-checked on the Showtime series Shameless, parodied on The Simpsons, and picked over by conspiracy theorists with a level of fervour normally reserved for the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Clearly, America’s largest art heist still looms large in popular culture.

As for the Canadian equivalent, in a 2019 magazine feature—arguably the most comprehensive reconstruction of the incident—arts-and-culture writer Chris Hampton notes that the robbery happened at the same time as Canada’s hockey summit series against the Soviet Union. “One is remembered in volumes,” he writes in Canadian Art. “The other, barely at all.” He reports that in 1972, the Montreal police put two detectives on the case. But, after a year, they basically gave up.

Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the MMFA break-in—bigger even than the mystery of who did it and where the paintings are today—is why such an ambitious stunt has been relegated to a historical footnote. A related question is why, even at the time of the theft, it failed to generate sustained public outcry. The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with the bizarre way that Western culture valuates art and also with the warped ethics of the art trade itself, which can make it difficult for us to summon outrage over art crime, even when it happens on a million-dollar scale.

The correlation between a given artwork’s aesthetic, cultural, and monetary value is tenuous, if it exists at all. It’s not clear, for instance, why an art establishment that made icons of early abstract painters like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee was less enamoured of Marsden Hartley, an equally talented contemporary, or why the cubist paintings of Picasso and Georges Braque are still more celebrated than the livelier, idiosyncratic cubism of their peer Juan Gris. Taste defies logic, a fact that’s all too clear if you’ve followed the recent digital-art craze and learned that someone—God knows why—spent the equivalent of $537,084 (US) in cryptocurrency on a non-fungible token of Pepe the Frog’s butt.

Art either captivates the public or it doesn’t, and the same, it would seem, is true of art heists. Some enthrall us with their brazenness, like when, in 2000, three men bearing pistols and a submachine gun raided the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm and escaped with two Renoirs and a Rembrandt in a waiting speedboat. Others charm with their cheekiness, like when, in 2003, thieves stole works by Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin from the Whitworth art gallery in Manchester “to highlight the woeful security” there and then deposited the paintings where they could be easily found in a nearby public bathroom. And others still fascinate for their prestige. The 1994 raid on the National Museum in Oslo featured a high-profile thief—former football star Pål Enger—and an even more iconic artwork: Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Perhaps the MMFA robbery failed to generate similar attention because it lacked the dramatic appeal of other big-time heists. The method of infiltration was daring but not worthy of a Hollywood caper. The anonymous thieves brought little humour or charisma to the operation. And the event itself never crystallized into a narrative—the kind that might’ve bolstered the status of the stolen art itself.

A good public narrative can, at the best of times, transform an art theft into a lucky break for the gallery. When the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre for twenty-eight months beginning in 1911, the painting was so obscure that museum officials initially failed to register its absence. The story might have fizzled except that it stoked the paranoia of the times—an era of rising American industrial might and simmering tensions across Europe. Conspiracy theorists speculated that US investment banker J. P. Morgan had bought the painting on the black market as a means of seizing Europe’s cultural legacy. Others ventured that the German emperor, Wilhelm II, had masterminded the theft as an act of aggression against France. In fact, the culprit was a lowly caretaker at the Louvre working alongside two of his friends. But the fevered speculation around the crime turned it into an international media sensation, introducing readers to Lisa del Giocondo’s enigmatic face and cementing the Louvre’s status as the world’s premier art destination.

The Mona Lisa saga is the most dramatic version of a common redemption narrative. At the time Willem de Kooning’s gestural, loosely figurative oil painting Woman-Ochre was cut from its frame in broad daylight at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985, the work had a mixed reputation: feminists had long decried the grotesque treatment of its female subject. But, when the painting resurfaced thirty-one years later—and when gallery goers learned that it had been hanging in the bedroom of a middle-class couple from New Mexico, the likely culprits in the heist—the story completely changed. A retrograde artwork acquired a heroic backstory. De Kooning’s manic brush strokes were now imbued with a new kind of energy.

One doubts that anybody at the Louvre or the Arizona museum would’ve publicly admitted that these thefts were good for their institutions, but they clearly were. In June of this year, Woman-Ochre was remounted in a highly publicized exhibition—first seen at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, and then at the Arizona museum itself—which gave visitors a chance to see the scars and scrapes the work had accumulated during its long absence. Curators at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have made similar narrative use of the legendary 1990 heist, which they memorialized by placing empty frames in the galleries where the purloined art should be—a poignant gesture that still feeds public fascination.

It seems that the MMFA team didn’t manage to turn the 1972 crime into a story. In fairness, they didn’t have much to work with. Among the portraits, landscapes, and still lifes taken from the museum, none had the expressionistic power of The Scream or the erotic pull of the Mona Lisa. There was no lost classic awaiting rediscovery, and the museum, it seems, never tried to anoint one.

And, with one exception, the paintings weren’t returned, which means they never got the economic boost that stolen art sometimes gets. Although a recovered painting can appreciate wildly, an unrecovered one is worth a mere fraction of its former value. In the legal market, blue-chip art commands a high price either for the prestige it bestows on the owner or because the owner expects to one day sell it for an even higher price. But, since buyers can’t proudly claim ownership of stolen art, they have few means of unlocking its social capital, and since they can’t easily sell it at auction, they have even fewer means of extracting its actual capital either.

There are exceptions to this rule. Rumour has it that the Sicilian mafia boss who took custody of Caravaggio’s stolen masterpiece Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence was alleged to have displayed the painting as a kind of flex—proof that not even the international art police could touch him. In most cases, though, stolen art doesn’t come with bragging rights or resale prospects, and so it reportedly sells for a meagre 7 to 10 percent of its normal auction value.

This fact would explain why, after the MMFA heist, the robbers took a risk that people in their situation so often take: they tried to ransom the art back to the museum. Responding to an anonymous call, the MMFA’s security chief went to a location near McGill University where an idle cigarette pack was lying on the ground. Inside was a piece of stolen MMFA jewellery—proof, from the thieves, that they possessed the full bounty.

Negotiations moved briskly and then unravelled just as fast. The thieves demanded a $500,000 ransom for the cache. Hampton accessed police reports that indicated the estimated value was actually $5 million, much higher than the $2 million originally reported. The museum talked the thieves down to $250,000. (The quickness with which they dropped their price suggests a measure of desperation.) The museum then got the thieves to surrender one painting—a hazy landscape attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder—for free, as a sign of goodwill. They even convinced the gang to hand over a second painting. But, at the designated drop-off point, a random police cruiser passed by, and the thieves fled, suspecting a set-up.

At this point, trust deteriorated. Having returned some of the loot—and having offered to hand over the rest for a fraction of its nominal value—the robbers basically cut off contact. And so they were stuck. They had a remarkable treasure trove but no obvious place to put it. Art thieves often find themselves in this predicament, because they don’t consider how the theft itself can alter the value proposition of the work. The moment the canvasses walked out of the MMFA in 1972, they lost their status as “art” and instead became “stolen art,” an entirely different commodity. The museum, according to Canadian Art, gave up on the paintings and quietly billed their insurer.

How angry were Montrealers about losing a part of their collective cultural inheritance?

Apparently, not angry enough to keep the story in the headlines or to prevent the cops and the gallery from abandoning the case. But art crime rarely provokes anger. We react with apathy, unless a heist somehow captures our attention, in which case we display a kind of benevolent fascination. In the 1968 Hollywood film The Thomas Crown Affair (and in its 1999 remake), the art-thief protagonist is so debonair that the insurance investigator tasked with bringing him to justice ends up sleeping with him instead. In 2001, when a real-life thief, Stéphane Breitwieser, was revealed to have taken nearly 240 objects and artworks from museums across Europe, a French court sentenced him to twenty-six months in jail, over and above his four-year sentence in Switzerland. He still managed to get a book deal, though, and a glossy profile in GQ.

But should museum heists outrage us? This question is complicated by the fact that Western museums are themselves repositories of stolen art, including Holocaust- and colonial-era plunder. (In a much-quoted 2007 speech at a UNESCO event in Paris, Beninese curator Alain Godonou estimated that of all the African art held in museums around the world, between 90 and 95 percent resides outside of Africa.) Moreover, as bad as art crime might be, it’s hard to distinguish such thefts from the sleazy machinations of the lawful art market, which seems designed to support criminality. Auction houses in Europe and North America, for instance, adhere to a gentlemanly code of discretion, whereby the names of buyers and sellers are kept from the public record. If a transaction is conducted through intermediaries, the auctioneers may themselves be unaware of the participants’ real identities. (The EU and US have recently enacted regulations to make the art world more transparent, but buyers and sellers who wish to remain anonymous still have plenty of ways to do so.)

This culture of omertà is a gift to tax evaders: if you refuse to disclose the full capital gains on an art sale, or if you pretend that the sale itself never happened, the government can’t easily call your bluff. Secrecy is a gift to money launderers too. At the auction house, funds acquired via embezzlement, or via the drug or arms trade, can be quietly converted into art—and then quietly converted into clean cash at a later date. When, in 2015, police raided the properties of Ronald Belciano, a Philadelphia drug lord, they found paintings by Renoir, Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, most of them held in a nearby storage locker. The man, it would seem, had little interest in actually looking at the works he’d acquired.

Sure, we could get mad at the Belcianos of this world for being hucksters and boors, but hucksterism and boorishness are the grease that lines the art-commerce wheels. Even when the business isn’t aiding and abetting crime, it’s still doing things that the average person would consider sleazy. Outright thievery is morally repellent—at least for most of us and in most cases—because it allocates wealth unjustly, benefitting the unworthy at the expense of the worthy. According to a Forbes article, when the unknown artist Henry Darger died in 1973, he was so broke he could barely scrape together the $30 a month he needed to make rent. But the landlord who collected that rent eventually assumed ownership of Darger’s oeuvre, a cache of macabre folk art worth millions today. A winner was anointed. It wasn’t Darger.

Versions of this story play out again and again in the art world. Many of history’s greatest painters—El Greco, Van Gogh, or Egon Schiele—died impecunious. Decades later, hedge-fund managers, oligarchs, oil barons, drug lords, and assorted philistines who traffic in their work have made a killing. Perhaps the reason we idealize gentlemen thieves, like the fictional Crown and the real-life Breitwieser, is that these men, for all their flaws, at least care about art.

Many collectors seem, instead, to care about wealth, which the art business distributes according to rules that have little to do with merit or morality. More distressing than the market’s tendency to pick arbitrary winners is its tendency to pick arbitrary losers too. Artists go in and out of fashion, the value of their work rising and falling like meme stocks, and the business of attribution and reappraisal can feel, at times, like a shady hustle, akin to real estate flipping or card counting.

The various experts—some credible, some less so—who recently attributed a hammy devotional painting, Salvator Mundi, to Leonardo da Vinci did nothing good for the artist’s legacy, but they managed to turn a $1,000 eyesore into a $450 million collectable. If (when?) future appraisers reverse this attribution, all of that value will instantly vanish at the expense of the Saudi Arabian royal family, whose oil wealth financed the purchase.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking recent art-world controversy involves a middle-class French woman named Stephanie Clegg. As reported by the New York Times, she spent $90,000 (US) in 1994 on a watercolour that Sotheby’s attributed to Marc Chagall. In 2020, after downsizing her home, she decided to sell the artwork. But then the auction house retracted the attribution and, without Clegg’s consent, turned the painting over to the Chagall estate to be destroyed. Clegg, you might say, has been robbed by circumstance—not, to be sure, by literal thieves, but she has clearly been robbed nevertheless. That’s the art world for you. Not all, or even most, of the bad actors are criminals, and if you’re going to get angry, it’s not clear who’s most deserving of your ire.

Had the MMFA managed to recover the paintings stolen in 1972, it may have found itself in a predicament similar to Clegg’s. When researching his feature on the heist for Canadian Art, Hampton combed through the MMFA archives and found documents raising questions about the works’ provenance. The two stolen de Heems, Hampton learned, were likely painted by somebody other than de Heem. The man in the Gainsborough painting Portrait of Brigadier General Sir Robert Fletcher was wearing the wrong uniform for his station, raising doubts about the work’s real title and author. The Rembrandt, whose value accounted for most of the thieves’ take, may well have been painted by one of the Dutch master’s disciples. And the museum now attributes the recovered Brueghel to the school of Jan Brueghel the Elder (not, that is, to Brueghel himself). If anybody was robbed, it was the insurance company, which paid out a seven-figure settlement, some of which the museum spent on a supposed Rubens masterpiece that was likely misattributed too.

And this is where the trail goes cold. When Hampton asked sources where the purloined artworks might be today, one speculated that they could have ended up on a drug lord’s estate, perhaps in Latin America. Another theory holds that the paintings are buried somewhere in Montreal—hidden evidence of a crime that didn’t pay.

And if the theft had never happened? Some of the works would surely now hang in a forgotten corner of the gallery, far from the decorative arts-and-design pavilion or the touring exhibitions on French fashion that generate much of the museum’s appeal. Most, though, would be consigned to that purgatorial realm where dubious or unbeloved art inevitably winds up—the vault where the museum keeps all the works it doesn’t publicly display. The recovered “Brueghel” is there right now.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.
Jeffrey Kam
Jeffrey Kam is a Chinese Canadian illustrator and cartoonist based in Markham, Ontario.