Churchill portrait disappears in art heist in Canada

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Churchill portrait disappears in art heist in Canada
Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Winston Churchill, taken in December 1941 in Ottawa.Credit. Photo: Yousuf Karsh.

NEW YORK, NY.- It is among the most famous photographic images of a statesman. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, glowers, hand on hip. For decades, an original signed print of the image has hung on a wall in a landmark hotel in Ottawa, Ontario.

But on Friday, an employee noticed that something was off with the photograph, shot by renowned portraitist Yousuf Karsh.

The frame was askew. It did not match the others on the wall.

When the hotel, the Fairmont Château Laurier, called Jerry Fielder, director of Karsh’s estate, he thought there was “no chance” that the picture could have been replaced by a copy.

Then they sent him a close-up picture of what was supposed to be Karsh’s signature. “I was stunned,” Fielder said, noting that it had been forged. “This was a heist.”

The photograph, taken in 1941 after Churchill addressed the Canadian Parliament during World War II, is known as the “Roaring Lion” for the fierce gaze of the British leader, and the defiance that many said it captured as the Allied forces forged ahead in a difficult and bloody war.

It catapulted Karsh, an Armenian Canadian then 33, to international fame. He went on to photograph Ernest Hemingway, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Georgia O’Keeffe and Nikita Khrushchev.

Karsh had a special relationship with the Fairmont hotel: In 1936, he held his first exhibition there. In 1972, he opened his photography studio in the building. Later, he and his wife, Estrellita Karsh, moved in.

“We traveled so much it was difficult to keep up a big home,” Estrellita Karsh, 92, said by phone Tuesday evening. “I loved it,” she added, “because a hotel is like a little city.”

She and her husband, who died in 2002, gave the original print of Churchill, along with several others, to the hotel, after living there for nearly two decades. Karsh said that when she learned that the picture was missing, she was incredulous.

“Churchill was important in his life; he was important in everybody’s life,” Karsh said. “When he photographed him, Britain was on the verge of giving up.” Her husband, she added, had practiced making the image on a man who “looked like Churchill from the neck down.”

In a news release Tuesday, the Fairmont hotel said that it had informed local authorities of the picture’s disappearance, and, as a precautionary measure, had removed other photographs that were hanging in the reading lounge of the building.

“We are deeply saddened by this brazen act,” said Geneviève Dumas, the hotel’s general manager, adding that the hotel was incredibly proud to house the Karsh collection. In an interview with CTV News, she said the public had sent in photographs of themselves in front of the famous image, which revealed that it had been taken sometime between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6.

The hotel is asking anyone who saw or noticed anything unusual at the hotel during that time to contact them, Dumas said.

Fielder said the print was an original made from the original negative by Karsh in his Château Laurier studio. He said it was 20 by 24 inches, printed on photographic paper and mounted on archival board.

When Karsh closed his studio in 1992, his negatives were given to Library and Archives Canada, he said. No copies were allowed, Fielder said; the only prints in existence were those made by Karsh himself before 1992.

The Ottawa Police are investigating the disappearance, according to the CBC. The authorities did not respond to a request for further comment on Tuesday.

Another signed copy of an original print of Karsh’s “Roaring Lion” photograph was sold for $62,500 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2020.

The famous picture Karsh took of Churchill came after the photographer was invited by Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister, to hear Churchill’s “electrifying” speech to Parliament on Dec. 30, 1941. Karsh, eager to photograph Churchill, had set up his lights and camera the night before, according to Karsh’s website.

Churchill was apparently taken aback.

“What’s this, what’s this?” he barked as Karsh flipped on the floodlights.

Though irritated that he had not been told about the photo session, Churchill lit a cigar and told Karsh that he had one shot.

Karsh held out an ashtray but Churchill kept puffing.

“Forgive me, sir,” Karsh recalled saying as he snagged the cigar.

“By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,” Karsh said. “It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

While Karsh said he knew he had taken an important picture, he could “hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography.” In 2016, the image went on to be featured on the British 5 pound note, according to the International Churchill Society.

Estrellita Karsh said it was “a sad and stupid thing” to steal the photograph. “I hope they apprehend the person.”

She said that it was amazing that these many years later, the Churchill portrait still resonated.

The power of her husband’s images, she said, was that they captured the person behind the mask, including Churchill.

“The relationship and the bond that he shared with many of his sitters made them lose their numbness in front of the camera,” Karsh said.

“They allowed him to see, if only for a moment, which he caught, something real in them, something authentic,” she said. “The main element in his relationship to his sitter was trust.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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