- Employees at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Canada noticed a famous portrait of former British prime minister Winston Churchill wasn’t hung properly.
- They soon realized it was a fake, switched out for the real one, and an investigation was launched.
- Photographer Yousuf Karsh credits the portrait with changing his life.
A famous portrait of former British prime minister Winston Churchill appears to have found himself at the center of a heist.
The portrait, on display at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, Canada, was documented by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1941, and installed in 1998, the hotel posted on Facebook Monday.
The hotel said the photograph was replaced with a copy of the original.
When asked how they discovered the switch, a representative said someone noticed the photograph was not hung properly, so they removed it. That’s when they noticed something was wrong.
Jerry Fielder, the director of Karsh’s estate, told the New York Times he thought there was “no chance” the picture could have been replaced by a copy.
Then the hotel sent him a close-up picture of what was supposed to be Karsh’s signature. “I was stunned,” Fielder told the outlet, adding that it had been forged. “This was a heist.”
The hotel asked those with information to share it with Ottawa police.
In the famous photo, the former prime minister stares into the lens stoically, his left hand on his hip as his right hand rests on a nearby chair.
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‘I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture’
Karsh, the 20th-century photographer who took the photo, said that day changed his life, and his website offers an intimate look into the moments leading up to him taking the portrait.
“I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography,” he said in an excerpt on his website.
According to the photographer, Churchill had visited Washington and then Ottawa; Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King invited Karsh to join, so he waited in the speaker’s chamber where his lights and camera were set up the night before.
King walked into the chamber, his arms interlocked with Churchill’s, and when Karsh turned on his floodlights, Churchill demanded to know “What’s this?”
Karsh timidly asked if he could take his portrait to celebrate the “historic occasion,” to which Churchill asked why he wasn’t told about the photo beforehand.
After laughter began from onlookers, Churchill lit and puffed a fresh cigar, then agreed to have his photo taken. But the cigar, noticeably absent, seems to be the reason for Churchill’s disturbed expression in the famous photo, per Karsh’s recollection.
The photographer held out an ashtray so Churchill could nix the cigar, only for him to continue smoking. Karsh waited a bit more, and then “plucked the cigar out of his mouth.”
“By the time I got back to my camera, I looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,” he said about the meeting. “It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
In another photograph taken that day, Churchill flashes a reluctant smile at the camera. And another captures him sharing a laugh with King, Canadian prime minister.
Geneviève Dumas, General Manager at Fairmont Château Laurier, said in a post Monday the hotel is “deeply saddened by this brazen act.”
“The hotel is incredibly proud to house this stunning Karsh collection … We will not comment further as the situation will be under investigation,” Dumas wrote.
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at email@example.com.