In a spacious sitting room simply off the foyer of the Chateau Laurier resort in Ottawa, full with outsized leather-based chairs and tender music, a highlight shines on an empty wall.

If you happen to look carefully, you will see tiny holes within the wooden panelling the place particular safety bolts — which as soon as held a body firmly in place — have been neatly eliminated. Off to the facet, down towards the underside, sits an outdated brass nameplate: Winston Churchill 1941.

On this vacant and unrepaired wall, considered one of Canada’s photographic masterpieces as soon as hung proudly.

However somewhat over a 12 months in the past, Yousuf Karsh’s famed portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — an image generally generally known as The Roaring Lion — was stolen from the room, taken in plain sight.

“It is part of the historical past … of Canada,” stated resort common supervisor Geneviève Dumas. “Daily, folks come and say, ‘The place was it? What occurred? Did you discover it?’

“He wants to return again the place he belongs,” Dumas stated, personalizing what’s been dubbed Canada’s artwork heist of the century.

WATCH | Paul Hunter investigates the case of the lacking Churchill:

The thriller of the lacking Churchill portrait

Artwork heist thriller nonetheless unsolved: Who stole Yousuf Karsh’s iconic portrait of Winston Churchill from the partitions of the well-known Château Laurier resort and changed it with a faux? CBC’s Paul Hunter examines the clues, together with a shocking private connection to the case.

Whereas police stay baffled by it, former FBI senior artwork theft investigator Robert Wittman has a principle. 

“The very first thing I assumed,” he informed CBC at his residence in Philadelphia, “was that it was an inside job.”

Recognizing a faux

A part of the intrigue is the truth that nobody even knew it was lacking at first.

Final August, a upkeep employee on the Chateau Laurier seen that the body on the wall within the resort’s sitting room did not look fairly proper. Nearer inspection shortly revealed the Churchill to be a faux.

To the surprised dismay of all, somebody had swapped out the unique and changed it with an inexpensive copy. The faux was somewhat smaller, had a barely totally different body and Karsh’s signature was clearly solid. 

When the theft was found, it made headlines all over the world — not least as a result of the picture is taken into account some of the important portraits of the final 100 years. 

A framed black and white photo of a scowling man is shown on a wood-panelled wall.
The primary recognized picture of the faux Churchill portrait was taken by CBC’s Washington correspondent Paul Hunter on Jan. 6, 2022. In comparison with the unique, the faux was somewhat smaller, had a distinct, darker body and, upon inspection, a solid Yousuf Karsh signature. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Former resort company quickly despatched in memento photographs they’d taken of the Roaring Lion in prior visits to the resort, which confirmed both the unique or the faux up on the wall at totally different occasions. In learning these photographs of the portrait, investigators have been quickly capable of slender the dates by which the theft will need to have occurred. 

The earliest recognized picture of the faux was taken Jan. 6, 2022. The newest picture of the unique was from Christmas Day 2021. Thus, the theft needed to have occurred inside these 12 days. It was a serious clue.

Ottawa had been in COVID-19 lockdown on the time, and there have been only a few company staying on the Chateau Laurier. As nicely, the resort had its personal COVID outbreak throughout these days, and had been working with decreased workers — particularly within the evenings, as each the bar and resort restaurant have been quickly shuttered.

Successfully, the place was a ghost city. Artwork theft skilled Robert Wittman calls that “a possibility.”

An empty hotel lobby is shown, with armchairs and a couch sitting around the large room. The lobby is lit by a chandelier and white and purple wall scones.
A photograph of the empty foyer of the Chateau Laurier taken on Jan. 6, 2022. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Years in the past, Wittman based the FBI’s Nationwide Artwork Crime Group and continues to weigh in on the shadowy underworld of this sort of felony exercise.

“It must be somebody who had entry, who was speculated to be there,” he stated. “[Someone] who knew what instruments have been wanted and really had the time to do it, and was not suspicious to anybody within the resort to start with.”

In different phrases, he defined, “it would not be any person strolling in off the road.”

A chunk of photographic historical past

The Roaring Lion was taken by Karsh in 1941 after Churchill had given a wartime speech to Canada’s Home of Commons. The scowl captured on Churchill’s face got here to represent British resolve towards the Nazis within the Second World Warfare.

As legend has it, moments earlier than snapping the picture, Karsh had taken away Churchill’s omnipresent cigar with out warning.

Churchill’s expression instantly soured. And with the clicking of a shutter button, Karsh made photographic historical past.

The portrait had been on public show alongside various different Karsh portraits, every of them gifted to the resort by Karsh as a thanks for the various years the late Armenian Canadian photographer and his spouse had lived there.

chateau laurier downtown ottawa pedestrians people hotel street
The historic Château Laurier resort is a landmark in downtown Ottawa, sitting simply east of Parliament Hill and simply west of the Byward Market. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Wittman says the act of swapping out the unique and placing up a faux is all about shopping for time for the felony to get away and maybe promote the picture earlier than anybody even notices it is gone.

Such fakes, he says, usually do not even should be superb reproductions. They only should be “shut sufficient.”

For the reason that theft was revealed, police in Ottawa have underlined that their investigation stays “lively.” In a written assertion to CBC Information, they are saying they’ve “spoken to potential witnesses” on the resort and different locations and have “adopted up on leads from the general public which were obtained on-line, by telephone and by e-mail.”

In a uncommon step, police additionally gave CBC unique entry to the faux Churchill seized from the resort. It is held at a extremely secured police proof warehouse in Ottawa’s suburbs.

Stored inside a transparent plastic sleeve, the faux was discoloured by forensic chemical compounds, having been examined for any proof which may lead police to the offender.

A photograph discoloured with burgundy dye is shown in a plastic sleeve on a white table.
After it was faraway from the wall of the Château Laurier, the faux Karsh {photograph} was examined by police, together with with forensic chemical compounds that discoloured the forgery. It is now saved at an RCMP warehouse in Ottawa’s suburbs. (Paul Hunter/CBC)

Churchill’s expressive face was hidden from view, however his hand and the cast Karsh signature underline the notion that it was “shut sufficient” to the unique to idiot folks for a lot of months.

A affected person wait

In sensible phrases, it enabled the thief to get away with it to this present day.

Wittman says that proper now, the stolen Churchill might be “on a wall someplace.”

“There’s been lots of publicity about it since [the theft] has been found, so I feel whoever has it’s most likely mendacity low in the intervening time.”

genevieve dumas
Geneviève Dumas, supervisor of the Fairmont Château Laurier, says the unique portrait of Churchill ‘wants to return again the place he belongs.’ (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Wittman warns that discovering it might take years. However he pressured that “in some unspecified time in the future, this {photograph} will present up.”


“When it comes again to market,” stated Wittman. “Whether or not it is being offered by means of an public sale home, or by means of a supplier, or to an undercover FBI agent or RCMP agent, that is when the artwork comes again to the house owners.”

He stated that in his expertise, when stolen artwork goes available on the market, “somebody talks about it.”

The thieves “inform the unsuitable particular person. The unsuitable particular person turns round and tells the police. After which there’s an undercover operation to get well it.”

“Have endurance,” he emphasised. “It should present up.”

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