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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 after apparently being replaced with a copy, but exactly how long ago it disappeared is a mystery.

A staff member at the storied downtown Ottawa hotel, just steps from Parliament Hill, discovered on Friday night that the portrait hanging on the wall was a replica, not the original that was installed in 1998.

Specifically, the employee noticed its frame wasn’t hung quite right and didn’t match those of the other five portraits in the lounge, which 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, who was hired by Karsh himself in 1979 and is now director of Karsh’s estate, got a call from the Château Laurier’s general manager on Saturday.

Like something out of a movie

The work that was supposed to be hanging there was made from a negative and signed by Karsh, but when Fielder asked to be sent a copy of the signature, he knew instantly that it was a forgery. 

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

The hotel then contacted Ottawa police, who confirmed to CBC on Monday that they are investigating the potential theft.

“I couldn’t believe that anyone would do this,” Fielder told CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning on Tuesday. “It had been there for so long and had been such a part of the hotel. It was shocking and very saddening.”

What happened to the original iconic image is unclear. Fielder said that the last time he saw it hanging in the hotel was in July 2019, and that “it was the real thing.”

Removing the original and replacing it “was obviously thought out and planned,” Fielder said.

“I would like [whoever took it] to give it back, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Michel Prévost, president of La 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 of the situation. “Famous hotel, and you have the security. And one of the most valuable portraits of your collection is stolen.”

Karsh’s history with the Château Laurier

Karsh had a long connection to the hotel. He and his first wife lived there for 18 years, and his studio was housed in the building until 1992, Prévost said.

The hotel said it has 15 original works by the photographer, six of which, including the Churchill portrait, were hanging in the lounge. 

The remaining five have now been removed from the lounge until they can be better 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 said the picture, known as The Roaring Lion, changed 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 permitted Karsh one photograph. To make the most of the shot, Karsh pulled the cigar from Churchill’s lips and caught him glowering as a result. 

“Then [Churchill] said, ‘You may take one more.’ And then he was smiling and looked very benign. But it’s 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.” 

Prévost, meanwhile, wonders 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 speculated.

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

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