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A famous portrait of former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, has been stolen from the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, Canada. It has been replaced with a copy. The Hollywood-like heist was uncovered on August 19, 2022, after an employee noticed the portrait's frame did not match that of the other photographs in the hotel's reading room.
Suspecting they had been victims of a theft, the hotel staff reached out to Jerry Fielder. The estate director of the late Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh — who took the iconic portrait — instantly knew it was a fake. Fielder said, "I've seen that signature for 43 years. So it took me just one second to know that someone had tried to copy it."
Investigators, who used photos submitted by the public, believe the portrait was swapped out sometime between December 25, 2021, and January 6, 2022. Genevieve Dumas, the hotel's manager, suspects it was a professional job since special tools are needed to remove the frame from the wall.
The famed photo — dubbed The Roaring Lion — was captured moments after Churchill finished addressing the Canadian Parliament on December 30, 1941. The statesman was puffing a cigar, which interfered with Karsh's vision of the portrait. After several attempts to persuade Churchill to put out the cigar failed, the photographer walked up to him and plucked it out of his hands.
"By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me," Karsh later recalled. "It was at that instant that I took the photograph."
Karsh, who died in 2002, went on to photograph hundreds of famous figures, including former US President John F. Kennedy and famed scientist Albert Einstein. But The Roaring Lion remains one of his most famous works. In 2016, the iconic photograph was featured on Britain's first plastic currency — a five-pound note.
In 1992, Karsh donated all his work to Library and Archives Canada. Per his request, all prints have been disallowed. This has made his work, including the stolen portrait, even more valuable. A signed print of The Roaring Lion fetched $62,500 at a Sotheby's auction in 2020.
It may appear odd for a hotel to own such expensive artwork. But Karsh always had a strong connection to the Fairmont Château Laurier. He hosted his first exhibition there in 1936 and opened his studio there in 1972. In 1980, he and his wife permanently moved into the luxurious hotel. During the time, the artist gifted the Fairmont Château Laurier several original prints of his work.
"We traveled so much it was difficult to keep up a big home," Estrellita Karsh, now 92, told the New York Times. "I loved it because a hotel is like a little city."
The Ottawa police are investigating the theft. Meanwhile, Karsh's other signed photographs have been removed from display until the hotel can find a way to secure them better.
Resources: Smithsonianmag.com, scmp.com, karsh.org, cbc.ca