Shutterstock

Early in the morning on September 4, 1972, three armed thieves entered the Montreal Museum of Fine Art through a skylight. The robbers restrained the three guards on duty before making off with $2 million worth of art objects. Roughly half of the value of the haul came from one painting: a landscape painted by Rembrandt.

The case is one of the most notorious unsolved art heists in history and the largest ever seen in Canada. How did three people manage to steal $2 million worth of art without leaving any evidence behind?

Background

The MMFA was experiencing financial trouble in the early 1970s. After decades of patronage by wealthy Anglophone Canadians, the museum fell on hard times when English-speaking Canadians moved away from Quebec. By 1972, the building was in disrepair, and management planned to shut it down in 1973 to renovate the aging structure.

Thieves likely cased the museum before making their move on September 4. Management planned to repair a skylight on the roof and had covered it with a plastic tarp the day before. Using tools employed by utility workers, one of the thieves scaled a tree near the building and found a ladder to lower to his co-conspirators.

Break-In

The damaged skylight didn’t trigger any alarms when opened by the burglars. The three then used fifty feet of rope to lower themselves soundlessly into the building. After a brief scuffle, the thieves apprehended the three on-duty guards and tied them up in a lecture hall.

One of the thieves watched over the guards while the other two gathered up their haul. The guards overheard the thieves’ plans and later told police that the group planned to exit back out of the skylight. However, they quickly realized that it would be impossible to lift all the paintings to the roof.

Stolen Works

As an alternative plan, the burglars exited through a side door in the museum, setting off an alarm as they escaped into the street. They made off with a total of 18 paintings, having cut them from their frames and rolled them up into poster tubes. In addition to the paintings, the thieves made off with 38 pieces of jewelry and figurines.

The investigation never found any evidence of the stolen artwork. The thieves eventually returned a single piece by Jan Brueghel in a bid to start ransom negotiations.

There is no consensus on who was responsible for the crime. Some investigators have guessed that the Montreal Mafia engineered the heist. Others have placed blame on the Quebec separatist movement. In either case, the crime remains unsolved, and all but one of the paintings are still missing.