Kayin Queeley expresses himself with his entire body. One can feel his enthusiasm in every sweep of his hand, in the set of his shoulders and the widening of his eyes.
Fifty years after what has been described as the biggest art heist in Canadian history, the thieves’ identities remain a mystery, and nobody is keen to talk about it.
From the Montreal police to the art museum that was burgled, from Canadian Heritage to the Quebec Culture Ministry, mum’s the word on the Skylight Caper.
It was in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, 1972 when three men rappelled from a skylight down a nylon rope into the second floor of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. They had selected the one skylight for which the alarm hadn’t been set, and once inside, the armed trio quickly overpowered the museum’s few overnight guards.
Blindfolded, gagged and bound in a first-floor lecture hall, the guards could only provide the most basic of descriptions — the two men they actually saw were of average height and build, wore ski masks and had long hair. Two of the thieves spoke French and one spoke English. A fair chunk of the city’s male population could fit the description.
It is not altogether surprising the case faded quickly from memory, as the 1972 Labour Day weekend was particularly eventful. On Friday, Sept. 1, three men who were refused entry to Montreal’s Wagon Wheel, a country and western bar, set fire to a rear staircase. The blaze ultimately consumed the entire building, killing 37 people.
The next day, Canada lost the opening game of the 1972 Summit Series to the Soviet Union at the Montreal Forum.
And by the time news of the Skylight Caper began hitting national newswires, international attention had been drawn to the unfolding Munich Olympics hostage crisis, soon to degenerate into one of the most appalling acts of terrorism the world had seen.
To this day, the Montreal theft — which the journal Canadian Art in 2019 called the largest in the country’s history — remains remarkably obscure.
For about half an hour, the trio went about selecting the paintings, small objects and pieces of jewelry they intended to steal. Evidence from the scene suggested to investigators that the thieves attempted to rig a pulley system to haul themselves, and the precious art and artifacts they had stolen, back through the skylight.
Later reports on the theft indicated the thieves abandoned their initial pulley scheme and opted to use the museum’s panel van instead.
One of the thieves inadvertently tripped the alarm on a side door leading out to the street, in the process eliminating the suspicion it had been an inside job.
Investigators later determined that the thieves panicked, grabbed what they could carry — 18 paintings and 39 small objects — and took off on foot.
Among the stolen items were paintings by Delacroix, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Millet, Rubens and Rembrandt.
What had been left behind was even more surprising: masterpieces by Goya, El Greco, Picasso, a Renoir and another Rembrandt.
Police later concluded that what connected the stolen pieces was their size — all were small enough to be easily stacked together.
At the time, the museum estimated it had lost $2 million in stolen property — nearly $14 million in today’s dollars. Later estimates indicated the Rembrandt alone may have been worth that much.
Only two of the stolen items have ever been recovered — a pendant and a painting attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder — both during ultimately failed ransom efforts.
As the 50th anniversary approached, the Montreal police department was asked for comment about the unsolved mystery.
Spokesperson Anik de Repentigny said the case is still considered open and offered no further comment.
But long-time art crime investigator and retired Montreal police detective Alain Lacoursière— a man whose talent for solving art crimes earned him the nickname the Columbo of art — doesn’t believe Montreal police are actively investigating the theft because no one is familiar with the file.
Lacoursière has also previously told both the Journal of Art Crime and Canadian Art that he believes the investigation was flawed from the beginning, alleging files were mishandled and investigators gave up too soon.
Though the museum’s media relations department put together a collection of files about the case, they were reluctant to discuss it in any depth.
The theft is for all intents and purposes a cold case, the paintings and objects are now the stolen property of the insurer and the affair dealt an embarrassing blow to the museum’s prestige and collection.
“Any artwork’s theft is a tragedy, as it deprives society of the benefits of art and knowledge,” Maude Béland, media relations officer for the museum, said in an email. “Of course, we would love to have them back! Unfortunately, we do not have any new information.”
When contacted by The Canadian Press for comment on the anniversary of the theft, spokespeople for representatives at three levels of government declined all comment.
The Skylight Caper is unique among high-profile art thefts, as the paintings have both increased and decreased in value. After the Brueghel was returned unscathed in a show of good faith during ransom negotiations, it was re-assessed by a prominent art historian and determined unlikely to have been painted by the great master.
Subsequent review of the museum’s files on the stolen paintings, as reported in the Journal of Art Crime in 2011, revealed that doubts had been cast on the authenticity and/or attribution of about seven paintings, in some cases dating to six years before the heist.
Adding insult to injury, a Rubens purchased by the museum with the insurance payout was also later determined to be misattributed.
What seemed like the biggest break in the case came about 30 years after the theft at a small art gallery in Montreal’s east end. Lacoursière struck up a conversation with a man he would subsequently nickname Smith who seemed to know everything about the case, including details that weren’t commonly known to the public.
The man was an avid art collector, independently wealthy and had been an art student in Montreal in 1972. “Smith” indicated he might have been part of a group of art students Montreal police suspected in the weeks after the theft.
Lacoursière at one point showed up at the man’s home and asked him — perhaps hoping to throw him off — where in his backyard they should start digging. “Smith” just laughed it off.
Lacoursière says the man he dubbed Smith died in 2017 or 2018. “He was certainly well versed in the details of the theft,” Lacoursière said in an email exchange, “but I think this was either from newspapers or from friends.”
The retired detective spent a good part of his career investigating the case but still has no clear idea of what happened to the paintings aside from a hope that they still exist somewhere.
If you noticed art displays popping up around Calgary this weekend, you weren’t the only one.
On Saturday and Sunday, Calgary-based artists took over several parking lots with art projects built into and around a number of vehicles that traveled throughout the city.
The exhibition, dubbed Idle Worship, is a mobile showcase of art and performance in trunks, back seats, box trucks, minivans, and automobiles, designed specifically for the context of parking lots across the greater Calgary area.
“We dedicate a lot of our cities to roads and parking lots and these spaces, I think, could be more absurd,” said Caitlind Brown, an organizer and part of the artist-driven project.
“[The spaces] could be weirder and come with more conversations.”
The movement brought art to unsuspecting crowds near malls, big-box stores and grocery shops.
People were climbing into a U-Haul, peeking in car windows — and jumping into the mouth of an unidentified species.
Abebe Kebede was just out to grab a coffee with a friend when he noticed something next to him.
While they were chatting in the car, one of the art pieces was set up right beside them.
“When I saw that [being set up], I thought, ‘what, I have to go see it,'” he said. “It looked like a weird animal’s mouth opening, it’s so amazing, I really like it.”
The exhibit popped up in every one of Calgary’s quadrants.
Idle Worship has a performance art component, too. One artist sat in his vehicle with dirt and flowers, giving the viewers a choice: water the plant or water the boy.
And there was some tongue and cheek commentary.
Khalid Omokanye said his piece is about greenwashing— a popular marketing tactic that brands use to give the impression that their business practices are sustainable and fight climate change, without actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
His project is housed in the back of a pick-up truck.
“I made a little sculpture there, that drops seeds as I am driving, potentially planting a forest in my wake,” he said. “So this vehicle becomes no longer an issue because it plants enough trees to fix its problems.”
Given the circumstances of the art show, Brown was surprised that there were no issues at all.
“This has been a remarkably problem-free exhibition, considering we are literally just touching down in parking lots without asking for permission from the property owners, and then getting up and driving away,” she said.
“The great thing about this exhibition is that if there had been any problems, we could’ve just packed up and left.”
An afternoon rally was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery Sunday following the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman while in police custody.
Mahsa Amini died earlier this month in police custody, after being detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly. Her family says she was beaten by police. Officials say she died of a heart attack.
Since her death on Sept. 16, protests and rallies have erupted in Iran and around the world.
“People are frustrated,” said Farad Soofi, an Iranian-Canadian who also attended the UN General Assembly in New York last week to protest the Iranian regime.
“They’re coming to say, ‘We don’t want that regime.’”
Chants of “women, life, freedom” could be heard coming from the crowd.
“It has always been like this in Iran,” said Lena Kruk, who moved to Vancouver from Iran four years ago.
“It is an anti-women kind of regime.”
Clashes between Iranian protesters and security forces have turned deadly, and the government has restricted the population’s internet access to help prevent more demonstrations. https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/at-least-9-killed-as-iran-protests-spread-over-woman-s-death-1.6079121
Iranian-Canadian Amir Takbash says he’s been unable to speak with his family.
“It’s really hard. I haven’t heard from my mom for more than a week and it’s really, really hard for us here,” said Takbash.
“You just feel so bad,” said Kruk. “I feel like, you know, I couldn’t stop crying.”
“It’s heartbreaking to not be there with them, to not fight with them,” said Iranian-Canadian Parisa Moshfegh.
“So we’re going to do whatever we can from here.”
Despite living thousands of kilometres away, some in the crowd said they’re still fearful of protesting against the current regime.
“Even in the protest in Vancouver, a lot of people are wearing masks because they are afraid of being recognized. This is how much we are scared of speaking out,” said Moshfegh.
The rally spilled out onto Georgia Street, with thousands of people chanting and holding signs while marching for several blocks.
Vancouver police tweeted that the public should avoid the area as officers work to keep traffic flowing.
Several people at Saturday’s protest told CTV News that more rallies are being planned for next weekend.
Kayin Queeley expresses himself with his entire body. One can feel his enthusiasm in every sweep of his hand, in the set of his shoulders and the widening of his eyes.
He uses language that echoes his passion in phrases like “tapping into” and “taking the step” and “resonance.”
Queeley is the director of the Montreal Steppers, a team that uses their bodies to create rhythms and beats. The non-profit percussive dance group performs for themselves, for the community and visits schools for workshops and discussions that Queeley says quickly become “next-level.”
Percussive dance has origins in West Africa. It was a form of celebration and communication among slaves in North America and became popular among Black fraternities in the 1940s and ’50s, making its way to Canada by the ’90s.
Queeley, who is now a crisis case manager for students at McGill University, joined and went on to lead a stepping team while doing his undergrad in Upstate New York in 2007.
“What I didn’t realize then,” Queeley says, “was that stepping was going to introduce me to part of my history, a rich art form rooted in blackness, rooted in Black expression, Black healing. These are ways we are communicating with each other. For me, it was very superficial at first. It was cool, it looked good. Yet it has meant so much more for us.”
Although he had fallen away from stepping by the time he moved to Montreal with his wife in 2014, the need to “keep the art form alive and keep the passion of using my body to make music” was never far from his thoughts. Montreal Steppers was formed in 2019 and has 18 members, 13 of whom are active steppers, while the others take charge of such things as stage management, music direction, media, photography and spoken word.
When Queeley goes into a school for a workshop, the children will learn how to step. Yet the first thing he tells teachers is that he will allow the students to ask anything they want. A statement like that makes teachers nervous, he says, but he is blown away every time by the depth of conversation children set in motion.
He introduces himself and, with mid-elementary and older children, will begin, “About a hundred or so years ago (I’m just being generous), I would not be allowed to be in your classroom. The kids stop and say, ‘Mr. K., why?’ I say, because of my skin colour. At that time, although slavery had ended, there was segregation. Some ask, ‘What do you mean, what is that?’ It starts questions right away. As a Black man, I would not have been allowed into a white school. I would only have been allowed to teach at a Black school.”
In this way, the Steppers are bold about centring Black history and acknowledging what some children might not have had to think about. Kids, with their finely tuned sense of justice, “call out what is wrong,” he says. The workshops are wrapped up by talking about people’s differences and the importance of appreciating them.
Children stomp and clap, they walk and clap, they are almost always in motion. Yet when they experience it in rhythm, they are linked with their peers in an intangible way, Queeley says.
“We use our bodies to tell the story of stepping and history. We use the art form as a starting point to have dialogues and conversations around blackness, Black art, Black history, Black importance, around creating a safe space and taking up space for ourselves.”
It has been healing for the Montreal Steppers, Queeley says.
“As we dissect deeper into stepping, we connect the history. We recognize that this is not new. This has always been part of our ancestors’ expression. Going back to 14th century, back to West Africa before these folks were displaced against their will and brought to this North American context, these were elements of expression they were tapping into.”
The only time Queeley grasps for words is when attempting to define the connection his team experiences while stepping.
“Some folks say, ‘As you step on the ground, as you hit your body, you’re activating your land and you’re waking up your ancestors. It’s something we can’t really describe. … We’re tapping into something our ancestors laid down.”
The team has done more than 300 workshops and has met close to 10,000 students, Queeley says. It is one way they want to sow into Montreal communities.
“We want people to see us and know who we are: ‘This is in response to everything you have said about Black people and believe about us.’ We are incredible. We are gifted. We are intelligent. We are impressive.”
The Montreal Steppers are part of the English Language Arts Network’s education program, wherein schools are granted an amount to invite artists to hold workshops.
The Steppers have made an intentional decision to not do any workshops during Black History Month, to avoid being tokenized or made a checklist item. They use that time to focus on their own healing.
The group has set a fundraising goal of $4,000 for the month of September. The money will go directly to four community groups that have identified specific needs. The Steppers want their performances to be accessible and therefore not tied to fundraising, so donations are accepted online only. The groups benefiting are: The West Island Black Community Association’s robotics program; Côte-des-Neiges Black Association’s teen program; South Shore Youth Organization’s tutoring program; and Tinsdale Community Association’s high-school perseverance program.
“We want to continue to find ways to serve, teach, heal ourselves,” Queeley says. “Wherever this goes, if they feel a need to connect with us, we are happy to. We have seen the impact. We are very optimistic about what lies ahead.”
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