Police in Canada are investigating the “brazen” heist of a famous portrait of Sir Winston Churchill after the original photograph was mysteriously swapped for a fake.
Last week, an employee at the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa noticed something was wrong with a portrait known as the “Roaring Lion,” which was taken after the war leader addressed the Canadian parliament in 1941.
The frame of the photograph did not match the other five portraits in the room, all of which had been taken by acclaimed Armenian-Canadian portrait painter Yousuf Karsh, whose subjects included Martin Luther King Jr, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Queen Elizabeth. II. .
The hotel contacted Jerry Fielder, who oversees Karsh’s estate, to assess the signature on the suspicious print.
“I have seen that signature for 43 years. So it only took me a second to know that someone had tried to copy it,” Fielder told The Guardian. “It was a fake.”
Once the theft was discovered, the Ottawa police were notified and began investigating.
“We are deeply saddened by this brazen act,” the Fairmont hotel said in a statement, adding that it was proud of its “impressive” collection of Karsh prints.
It is unclear when Churchill’s handprint, which has hung in the hotel for 24 years, first disappeared.
The hotel received 15 original works by Karsh, six of which were in the lounge. The remaining five have recently been withdrawn until they can be properly secured, the hotel said.
Fielder, who worked closely with Karsh, says the photographer had a long relationship with the hotel. It housed his first exhibition in 1936 and he and his wife lived on the third floor for almost two decades. He also had a studio on the sixth floor until 1992.
Karsh, who fled the Armenian genocide with his family and spent much of his life in Canada, was known for his mastery of image making, both in the studio and when working with his models.
“For the kind of people he photographed, they could spot a sycophant or a fraud from a mile away. And when you were with Yousuf, you knew immediately that he was real. And I think he allows people to feel like they can be themselves,” he said. “He just had a way with people and make them feel comfortable,”
The image of Churchill frowning was an “exception,” Fielder said.
After seeing Churchill give an “electrifying” speech before the Canadian parliament in 1941, Karsh waited in the speakers’ room for an opportunity to take a portrait of Churchill and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
But as the two entered the room with arms linked, Churchill “groaned,” Karsh later recalled.
“I timidly approached and said, ‘Sir, I hope I am lucky enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.’ She looked at me and asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Karsh recalled that Churchill lit a new cigar, puffed on it “with a mischievous air” and then relented to allow a single photograph.
“I went back to my camera and made sure everything was technically okay. Wait; she continued to chew vigorously on her cigarette. Wait. So I went over to him and, without premeditation, but very respectfully, said, ‘Excuse me, sir,’ and took the cigarette out of his mouth. When I got back to my chamber, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that moment that I took the picture.”
The portrait, which “went viral, but more slowly,” Fiedler said, was used on the British £5 note in 2016.
“Obviously, this robbery was very carefully planned. I don’t know if anyone, maybe a super fan, wanted this to hang in his living room. But it is also very valuable. I assumed it was stolen for its value,” Fielder said.
No copies of Karsh’s work have been allowed since his negatives were given to Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s.
“We don’t allow reproductions,” Fielder said. “We do not allow copies.”
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