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Still Missing: The Skylight Caper

February 23, 2024
A black-and-white photograph of a small landscape painting.

A photograph of Landscape with Vehicles & Cattle by Jan Brueghel the Elder, the only painting recovered after the theft

All I wanted to do was a single post about unsolved art thefts. However, I have a habit of going down rabbit holes, so now it has morphed into a five-part series that I’m calling Still Missing. It’s about some of the stolen works of art that we have not recovered. While you might be familiar with the Gardner Museum Heist in Boston or when the Mosa Lisa was stolen in 1911, here are some incidents you may not have heard of. Or, at least, I hadn’t heard of them until I began. Some are still open cases, yet that doesn’t mean a lot of people still know about them. But let’s start with probably the most well-known one out of the way: the Skylight Caper in Montreal.

In the early morning hours of September 4, 1972, three armed men entered the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). It was Labour Day weekend in Canada, and many people in town were distracted not only by the holiday but also by the recent defeat of the Canadian national hockey team by the Soviets. Many of the MMFA’s executives were out of town on vacation. The three thieves used climbing spikes attached to their boots to scale a tree next to the museum, allowing them to get to the roof. One of the skylights was undergoing repairs, meaning it was removed and replaced with a simple plastic tarp. This allowed the team to enter the building without tripping any alarms. The men subdued three security guards and soon started taking things out of their displays and off the walls. After only 90 minutes, they stole approximately $2 million of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Corot, Millet, Gainsborough, and Courbet. These paintings were all rather small; making them easy to carry  (fortunately, they only made off with half of what they removed because, as they exited the building the alarm went off causing them to dropped several items, including works by Picasso and El Greco).  The MMFA published a list of the stolen items, ensuring they could not be sold through legitimate channels. Some speculate that the case was never fully solved because attention was diverted from the robbery. The very next day, the Palestinian group Black September took eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage during the Summer Olympics in Munich.

A black-and-white photograph of a still life painting featuring a globe and a skull

A photograph of Vanitas Still-Life by Jan Davidsz van Heem

Some have said the robbery may have been an inside job since the thieves knew about the skylight being repaired. However, this is not likely since they could have obtained that information anywhere. Furthermore, the thieves exited through a side door and tripped the alarm, making an inside job a little implausible. Police initially suspected a group of students at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts. These were mainly French-speaking students who had faced poor treatment by the Anglophone museum staff. The security guards did notice that two of the three thieves were French speakers. The local police watched these students for two weeks, but this was a dead end.

There were several attempts to ransom the stolen items. They initially mailed photos of the paintings to the museum, demanding $500,000 for their safe return. The museum asked for more proof than the photos, so the thieves told them to look in a specific locker at Montreal Central Station. There, they found Landscape with Vehicles & Cattle by Brueghel the Elder, an oil painting on a 7-by-10-inch copper plate. This is the only painting recovered from the theft. Many theories exist regarding where the rest are, ranging from being smuggled out of the country to Europe or Latin America to the thieves destroying the paintings to prevent them from being used as evidence. The most valuable items still missing include Landscape with Cottages by Rembrandt (estimated at $5 million in 2003) and a vanitas still-life by Jan Davidsz van Heem.

Though the incident was widely publicized, only a few remember the incident today. The police file is still open on the case, and some of the stolen paintings are among the most valuable works of art that remain missing.