Known as The Roaring Lion, 1941 photo of Winston Churchill was stolen from Chateau Laurier hotel
In a spacious sitting room just off the lobby of the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa, complete with oversized leather chairs and soft music, a spotlight shines on an empty wall.
If you look closely, you'll see tiny holes in the wood panelling where special security bolts — which once held a frame firmly in place — have been neatly removed. Off to the side, down toward the bottom, sits an old brass nameplate: Winston Churchill 1941.
On this vacant and unrepaired wall, one of Canada's photographic masterpieces once hung proudly.
But a little over a year ago, Yousuf Karsh's famed portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — a picture commonly known as The Roaring Lion — was stolen from the room, taken in plain sight.
"It's a part of the history … of Canada," said hotel general manager Geneviève Dumas. "Every day, people come and say, 'Where was it? What happened? Did you find it?'
"He needs to come back where he belongs," Dumas said, personalizing what's been dubbed Canada's art heist of the century.
WATCH | Paul Hunter investigates the case of the missing Churchill:
The mystery of the missing Churchill portrait
Art heist mystery still unsolved: Who stole Yousuf Karsh’s iconic portrait of Winston Churchill from the walls of the famous Château Laurier hotel and replaced it with a fake? CBC’s Paul Hunter examines the clues, including a surprising personal connection to the case.
While police remain baffled by it, former FBI senior art theft investigator Robert Wittman has a theory.
"The first thing I thought," he told CBC at his home in Philadelphia, "was that it was an inside job."
Spotting a fake
Part of the intrigue is the fact that no one even knew it was missing at first.
Last August, a maintenance worker at the Chateau Laurier noticed that the frame on the wall in the hotel's sitting room didn't look quite right. Closer inspection quickly revealed the Churchill to be a fake.
To the stunned dismay of all, someone had swapped out the original and replaced it with a cheap copy. The fake was a little smaller, had a slightly different frame and Karsh's signature was clearly forged.
When the theft was discovered, it made headlines around the world — not least because the image is considered one of the most significant portraits of the last 100 years.
Former hotel guests soon sent in souvenir photos they had taken of the Roaring Lion in prior visits to the hotel, which showed either the original or the fake up on the wall at different times. In studying these photos of the portrait, investigators were soon able to narrow the dates in which the theft must have occurred.
The earliest known photo of the fake was taken Jan. 6, 2022. The most recent photo of the original was from Christmas Day 2021. Thus, the theft had to have happened within those 12 days. It was a major clue.
Ottawa had been in COVID-19 lockdown at the time, and there were very few guests staying at the Chateau Laurier. As well, the hotel had its own COVID outbreak during those days, and had been operating with reduced staff — especially in the evenings, as both the bar and hotel restaurant were temporarily shuttered.
Effectively, the place was a ghost town. Art theft expert Robert Wittman calls that "an opportunity."
Years ago, Wittman founded the FBI's National Art Crime Team and continues to weigh in on the shadowy underworld of this type of criminal activity.
"It would have to be someone who had access, who was supposed to be there," he said. "[Someone] who knew what tools were needed and actually had the time to do it, and was not suspicious to anyone in the hotel to begin with."
In other words, he explained, "it wouldn't be somebody walking in off the street."
A piece of photographic history
The Roaring Lion was taken by Karsh in 1941 after Churchill had given a wartime speech to Canada's House of Commons. The scowl captured on Churchill's face came to symbolize British resolve against the Nazis in the Second World War.
As legend has it, moments before snapping the image, Karsh had taken away Churchill's omnipresent cigar without warning.
Churchill's expression immediately soured. And with the click of a shutter button, Karsh made photographic history.
The portrait had been on public display alongside a number of other Karsh portraits, each of them gifted to the hotel by Karsh as a thank you for the many years the late Armenian Canadian photographer and his wife had lived there.
Wittman says the act of swapping out the original and putting up a fake is all about buying time for the criminal to get away and perhaps sell the image before anyone even notices it's gone.
Such fakes, he says, generally don't even have to be very good reproductions. They just have to be "close enough."
Since the theft was revealed, police in Ottawa have underlined that their investigation remains "active." In a written statement to CBC News, they say they have "spoken to potential witnesses" at the hotel and other places and have "followed up on leads from the public that have been received online, by phone and by email."
In a rare step, police also gave CBC exclusive access to the fake Churchill seized from the hotel. It's held at a highly secured police evidence warehouse in Ottawa's suburbs.
Kept within a clear plastic sleeve, the fake was discoloured by forensic chemicals, having been tested for any evidence that might lead police to the culprit.
Churchill's expressive face was hidden from view, but his hand and the forged Karsh signature underline the notion that it was "close enough" to the original to fool people for many months.
A patient wait
In practical terms, it enabled the thief to get away with it to this day.
Wittman says that right now, the stolen Churchill may well be "on a wall somewhere."
"There's been a lot of publicity about it since [the theft] has been discovered, so I think whoever has it is probably lying low for the time being."
Wittman warns that finding it could take years. But he stressed that "at some point, this photograph will show up."
"When it comes back to market," said Wittman. "Whether it's being sold through an auction house, or through a dealer, or to an undercover FBI agent or RCMP agent, that's when the art comes back to the owners."
He said that in his experience, when stolen art goes on the market, "someone talks about it."
The thieves "tell the wrong person. The wrong person turns around and tells the police. And then there's an undercover operation to recover it."
"Have patience," he emphasized. "It's going to show up."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Hunter is a correspondent for CBC News in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he was a political correspondent for The National in Ottawa. In his more than two decades with the CBC, he has reported from across Canada and more than a dozen countries, including Haiti, Japan and Afghanistan.
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