A McGill phonebooth and the largest art heist in Canadian history

The story of the “Skylight Capers” and the 1972 robbery of the Montreal Fine Arts Museum

Alexandre Hinton, Multimedia Editor

An ill-omened spirit fell over Montreal in the early morning hours of September 4, 1972. The city was in a state of despair as the public mourned the loss of 37 Wagon Wheel club-goers in an atrocious fire. Few celebrated the Montreal Expos victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. The top song on the Canadian charts for that week was “Alone Again,” a morbid ballad composed by Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan. Meanwhile, three thieves were preparing to execute the largest art heist in Canadian history a few blocks away from McGill’s downtown campus.

The Montreal Fine Arts Museum is known today for being a world-renowned institution and an “Instagram hotspot,” but on that Monday morning in ‘72, it was the target of an elaborate raid. The attack was no ordinary crime according to detectives. It appeared to be scripted by the thieves as if they were characters in an Agatha Christie novel. The later nicknamed “Skylight Capers,” entered the building by shimmying down a nylon rope through an open skylight. After firing off two shots, they tied up and gagged multiple guards, and ran down Sherbrooke with dozens of pieces of valuable art in hand.

Catherine Schofield is the author of a comprehensive blog that analyzes the crime. Schofield is a journalist and graduate of the ARCA Masters Program in International Art Crime Studies, and a freelance writer for the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art Blog. Schofield has spoken with many individuals linked to the crime including witnesses of the heist’s aftermath, many of whom are now deceased. She spoke to The McGill Tribune with great passion about the events of September 4, 1972, from an undisclosed location in the state of California.

“I’m a mystery buff [....] I just prefer art crimes instead of murders,” Schofield said. “I was fortunate enough to speak with Bill Bantey before he died [....] [He] was an experienced journalist who understood crime and politics in Montreal and was the Director of Public Relations of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He was one of the first employees into the Museum when the theft was reported.”

Bantey gave a possible explanation for how the thieves were able to enter through the skylight, stating that construction work was happening on the skylight at the time of the robbery. Schofield agreed with this theory and added additional information.

“My thoughts are that the construction crew neutralized the alarm,” Schofield said.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 90 percent of museum heists involve individuals linked to the institution— when asked if this fact made Bantey a suspect, Schofield responded with a resounding “no.” She had even dined with him at his home and viewed his private collection of art.

Maude N. Bélan, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ (MMFA) media relations officer, said the museum discovered new information about the mechanics of the robbery after examining their archives of annual reports.

“A little after midnight, a man reached the Museum roof and lowered a ladder for two men waiting below,” Bélan wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “They then entered the Museum through a skylight. It appears it was under a reparation process, and the alarm was disabled.”

Bélan’s account from the museum archives did not align with Bantey’s theory that construction workers had interfered with the alarm system.

Schofield’s article on the heist in The Journal of Art Crime is consistent with the MMFA’s recollection of three unidentified men reaching the roof via ladder. Her article also reveals that the thieves met up on rue Sherbrooke, directly outside of the museum’s main building, and then headed to the museum's west wall. There, one of the thieves used electrician boots with picks on the toes to climb a tree, eventually jumping from the tree onto the roof of the museum. From there, he lowered a construction ladder to his accomplices.

The trio then began their journey to the chosen skylight. Hypothetically if someone were to try to recreate the route taken, they would find a perfectly sealed skylight. Comparing Google Earth imaging of the skylight today to Montreal Gazette reporter Jean-Pierre Rivest’s 1972 picture of the museum roof, it is clear that the museum no longer has any easy entry points. The museum still has a vast collection of skylights, however—perhaps an unknown homage to the public of a crime that rattled its community.

Roof of the Montreal Fine Arts Museum Building in 1972. X marks the location where the art thieves entered (Jean-Pierre Rivest / The Montreal Gazette)

Current Roof of the Montreal Fine Arts Museum Building 2021 (Google Earth Images)

According to an article published in La Presse, once the thieves reached the skylight, they opened it and slid down a 15-meter nylon cord to enter the museum. An article from the Montréal-Matin described the events according to accounts from the security guards. One guard recalled the thieves ordering him to lie on his stomach while he was headed to the kitchen for tea.

Alain Lacoursière, a detective who investigated the art heist, is nicknamed the "Columbo of Art" because of his unusual research methods. According to Schofield, Lacoursière was one of the few to examine the original police file. Lacoursière used this information to track dozens of possible leads—with some leading him to a sailboat in Italy, a French art student in Montreal, and a vagabond in Vancouver. None of the leads ever came to fruition, however, and the identity of thieves has still yet to be confirmed. The McGill Tribune contacted Lacoursière for comment, but he said that he has been retired for 10 years and is no longer acutely aware of the details of the case.

In a previous interview, Lacoursière stated that he discovered that one of the thieves took the 12-pump shotgun they were carrying and shot twice into the ceiling. This act was in response to the security guard not moving at their desired pace.

According to the Gazette’s reporting on the event, all three security guards on duty that night were tied up, gagged, and brought to the first floor. Sitting in forced silence, the guards watched the thieves grab millions of dollars worth of paintings and jewelry of their choice. Their ransacking did not last long, however.

“All alarms in the three-story museum operate on separate circuits,” Luana Parker, a Montreal Gazette reporter, wrote.“When one of the burglars accidentally tripped the side-entry alarm on his way out with the first load, the men ran out, taking what they could.”

An original MMFA report from their archives which cataloged the exact art stolen reveals that a 17th-century Spanish gold cross, a Rembrandt painting valued at over one million dollars, and a small collection of French paintings from the 18th- and 19th-centuries were among the pieces stolen. The thieves stole 55 pieces in total which had police scrambling to find leads in the days following the heist.

MMFA’s Director at the time, David Giles Carter, received a direct call from one of the thieves, who said he would prove that he had the stolen pieces in his possession by leaving a pendant at a specific location. The location chosen was a phone booth on McGill University’s downtown campus. According to Schofield, this phone booth was most likely in front of the Redpath Museum.

When Carter arrived at McGill University, he found the pendant and a brown envelope containing pictures of the other stolen pieces. With the exchange serving as confirmation that the caller was not bluffing, negotiations between the museum and the unidentified thieves began. Ransom talks were very volatile, after an attempted deceptive operation to catch the thieves went awry, communications ceased. None of the stolen pieces were recovered, except half of an unidentified painting mailed to La Presse and half mailed to The Star. Even detective Lacoursière’s one million dollar offer in 1999 turned up empty-handed.

When I asked Béland explained that the museum’s security system has been substantially upgraded over the past 48 years.

The updated security system, however, is still not foolproof. On September 3, 2011, exactly one day before the 39th anniversary of the original heist, an unidentified thief stole a fifth century BC Achaemenid Empire relief, valued at over one million dollars. The piece was later discovered during an interview with a horticulturalist in the background amongst a collection of Star Wars action figures. Upon identifying the culprit, prosecutors from the New York County District Attorney's office seized the relief. Regardless of the artifact’s recovery, the 2011 theft continued a pattern of stealing from one of Montreal’s finest institutions.