Famous portrait of Winston Churchill missing from Ottawa hotel in suspected art heist

One of the most famous portraits of Winston Churchill is missing from the Château Laurier’s Reading Lounge, but how long it’s been missing is a mystery.

A staff member at the downtown Ottawa hotel discovered on Friday night that the portrait hanging on the wall was a replica, not the original that was installed in 1998, when they noticed its frame didn’t match those of the other five portraits in the room that were also taken by photographer Yousuf Karsh.

Karsh, one of the 20th century’s most famous portrait photographers, took the photo in 1941 when the then-British prime minister was in Ottawa to address Parliament during the Second World War.

Jerry Fielder, the director of Karsh’s estate got a call from the Château Laurier’s general manager on Saturday. With his help they were able to determine that what was currently hanging in the hotel was a fake.

The work that was supposed to be there was made from the negative and signed by Karsh, but Fielder, who was first hired by Karsh as an assistant in 1979, asked to be sent a copy of the signature on this piece and said he knew instantly it was a forgery.

“It wasn’t his signature,” Fielder said.

The hotel then contacted Ottawa police, who told CBC they are investigating the potential theft.

Michel Prévost, president of The Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais, said he didn’t know how much the portrait was worth, but that no prints of Karsh’s work have been allowed since his negatives were given to Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s.

“It’s like a movie,” Prévost said. “Famous hotel, and you have the security. And one of the most valuable portraits of your collection is stolen.”

Karsh’s history at the Château Laurier

Karsh had a long history in the hotel — he and his first wife lived there for 18 years and he had his studio in the building until 1992, Prévost said.

The hotel says it has 15 original works, six of which, including the Churchill portrait, were in the lounge.

The remaining five have recently been removed until they can be properly secured, according to a statement from the Fairmont hotel.

“We are deeply saddened by this brazen act. The hotel is incredibly proud to house this stunning Karsh collection, which was securely installed in 1998,” the statement said.

Portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh is shown at his Ottawa studio with an exposure he created of Queen Elizabeth in this Dec. 21, 1988 photo. (Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

The roaring lion’s uncertain future

Karsh, originally from Armenia, made Ottawa his home from 1924 until the 1990s. He took pictures of 14,312 people in his career, according to Fielder, who says this portrait of Churchill launched him onto the international stage.

Fielder says the picture, known as The Roaring Lionchanged Karsh’s life and has a lasting legacy — it’s still the picture on the Bank of England’s £5 note.

Part of the appeal might be the story behind the photo shoot. Churchill didn’t want his picture taken, but allowed Karsh one photograph. To make the most of the shot, Karsh pulled the cigar from Churchill’s lips and caught him glowing as a result.

“Then he said, ‘You may take one more.’ And then he was smiling and looked very benign The Roaring Lion photograph that has become world famous,” Fielder said.

“It was a very uncertain time in Canada, the United States and the world and I think the portrait shows determination and strength. I think it gave people some courage.”

The fate of The Roaring Lion photograph is uncertain, since it could have gone missing any time over the near-quarter century since it was installed.

Removing the original and replacing it, “was obviously thought out and planned.” Fielder said. “I would like them to give it back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

For Prévost, the missing art reminds him of a mystery art heist in a movie, and in this case he doesn’t know how the story will end.

“I don’t know if the Château Laurier will receive a call asking $5 million for the portrait. It could also be in the collection of a fan of Sir Winston Churchill,” Prévost said.

“As a historian, I can speak about the past. I cannot speak about the future.”

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