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 of the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa noticed something wrong with a portrait known as the ‘Roaring Lion’ that was taken after the warlord addressed the Canadian Parliament in 1941.
The frame in the photo did not match the other five portraits in the room, all of which were taken by renowned Canadian-Armenian 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 fingerprint.
“I have seen this signature for 43 years. So it only took me a second to know that someone had tried to copy him,” Fielder told the Guardian. “It was a fake.”
Once the theft was discovered, Ottawa police were notified and began to investigate.
“We are deeply saddened by this brazen act,” the Fairmont hotel said in a statement, adding that it was proud of its “superb” 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, including six in the lounge. The other five have recently been removed 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 hosted its very first exhibit in 1936, and he and his wife lived on the third floor for nearly 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 renowned for his mastery of image making, both in the studio and when working with his subjects.
“For the kind of people he photographed, they could spot a sycophant or a fake from a mile away. And when you were with Yousuf, you knew right away that he was the real one. And I think it lets people feel like they can be themselves,” he said. “He just had a way with people and made them feel comfortable,”
The image of a scowling Churchill was an “exception”, Fielder said.
After watching Churchill deliver an “electrifying” speech to the Canadian Parliament in 1941, Karsh waited in the President’s bedroom for an opportunity to take a portrait of Churchill and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
But when the two walked into the room with their arms tied, Churchill “growled,” Karsh later recalled.
“I timidly stepped forward and said, ‘Sir, I hope I get the chance to paint a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.’ He glanced at me and asked, “Why didn’t they tell me?”
Karsh recalled Churchill lighting a fresh cigar, puffing it “playfully” and then relenting to allow a single photograph.
“I went back to my camera and made sure everything was fine technically. I waited; he continued to chew his cigar vigorously. I waited. So I advanced towards him and, without premeditation, but with great respect, I said: “Pardon me, sir”, and snatched the cigar from his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have eaten me up. It was at this moment that I took the photo.
The portrait, which “went viral, but in a slower form,” Fiedler said, was used on Britain’s five-pound note in 2016.
“Obviously this flight was very carefully planned. I don’t know if anyone, a super fan maybe, wanted this hanging in their living room. But it is also very valuable. I assumed it was stolen for its value,” Fielder said.
No printing of Karsh’s work has been permitted since his negatives were donated to Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s.
“We don’t allow reproductions,” Fielder said. “We do not allow copies.”
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