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The story of how Montreal became home to one of the leading art-theft units in the world began in the early 1990s with a lone discontented municipal detective pursuing a personal passion.

Alain Lacoursière grew up in rural Quebec, joined the police academy right out of high school and rose quickly in the Montreal police force. By 1992, he was a 32-year-old in charge of 22 police officers working fraud cases. He was intelligent, driven, skilled at reading con men and miserable in his work. "I hated the job and I was starting to hate myself," Mr. Lacoursière said.

On a two-week trip to Paris, Mr. Lacoursière found himself loitering in the Musée d'Orsay and the Louvre, which were in so many ways the exact opposite of his beat at home where he toured the dirtiest corners of the human psyche. He returned to Montreal, vowing to find a way to incorporate his long-time love of art with his police work. So he enrolled in an art history night course at a local university.

Unbeknownst to his superiors, he contacted the FBI and Interpol with an open-ended request: Were there any stolen art files that might have a connection to Canada? The FBI sent the Montreal cop pictures of art that was missing and Mr. Lacoursière's long journey began.

A fuzzy photograph of an antique tapestry, estimated to be worth $200,000, caught his attention. By then, his police desk was strewn with dozens of catalogues from local auction houses, one of which advertised what appeared to be the stolen tapestry. Mr. Lacoursière arrived at the auction house, just as the proceedings began, and soon found himself the proud owner of a tapestry, stolen out of New York. "I bought it for $195,000," he said, though, of course, the money never changed hands.

Mr. Lacoursière phoned his FBI contact the next morning and they arranged for the tapestry to be returned. A grateful agent asked if there was anything he, or the FBI, could do in return. "You can write a letter to my boss telling him this type of work is valuable," Mr. Lacoursière said. The letter, which was also sent to the mayor of Montreal, did the trick and the detective was granted permission to spend 25 per cent of his time on stolen art investigations.

Mr. Lacoursière began searching for like-minded law enforcers who track stolen art. In London, there was Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques Squad; in Los Angeles, there was a two-person unit called the Art Theft Detail. In France, Interpol was updating a list of global stolen artworks, and the Art Loss Register, a U.K.-based private database, was in its infancy, gathering lists of stolen art that auction houses could check.

He also submerged himself in the local art community. Montreal, it turns out, was a hotbed for hot art, and the detective was quickly overwhelmed with cases. The city was a destination for stolen works and a gateway to the largest art market in North America – New York. Mr. Lacoursière soon discovered a connection between stolen art and organized crime.

In the spring of 2001, Canada's RCMP, the Sûreté du Québec and the Montreal police conducted a sweeping raid on the Hells Angels' Quebec operations as part of a long investigation into a violent drug war that began in the mid-1990s. Mr. Lacoursière was called upon to tour an array of biker residences and clubhouses where, among the drugs, guns and cash, investigators had found caches of stolen art.

At one mansion, Mr. Lacoursière noticed a particularly opulent doorstop. He took a picture of it, e-mailed it to a few art experts and got a response almost immediately. He then instructed one of the officers to remove the doorstop. The police officer looked at him and asked, "Why? It's just a doorstop."

Mr. Lacoursière replied: "It's a bronze statue by Riopelle." The Riopelle turned out to be worth $75,000 and was one of the most valuable items seized.

In 2003, another raid on a biker's house yielded a Cézanne painting locked up in a safe. Mr. Lacoursière e-mailed a picture to a renowned Swiss-based expert who told him the painting was one of the most famous forgeries of a Cézanne ever created.

"Even though it was a fake, an auction house in New York – and I won't say which one, but it was one of the big ones – had already agreed to put it up for sale. The plan was for them to sell it at the New York auction house for $16-million," he said.

"The way this works is that criminals sell it through the auction house to another criminal buyer in the audience at the auction. It makes sense, because the auction house gets a percentage – say, a million dollars. But the criminal organization has just laundered $15-million. Not bad.

"The painting weighs one pound and is 16 inches wide. That's a lot easier than travelling with cash," Mr. Lacoursière said.

The detective's work on how organized crime used stolen art led Quebec's provincial police force to recruit him in 2003. He was given additional resources and allowed to pick a partner. He chose a young detective named Jean-François Talbot, with an eye toward training him as his successor.

In the meantime, evidence linking stolen art to organized crime continued to pile up. In 2006, a stash of more than 2,500 paintings was found stored in the warehouses of two drug dealers in Quebec City. "Every month these guys were placing hundreds of paintings in auction houses across Quebec. They were using the system to launder their blood money. Place a man in the audience who inflates the price and buys the painting. Auction house gets its percentage, money is cleaned," Mr. Lacoursière said.

He began to use technology aggressively, building a database with thousands of e-mail addresses of the world's cultural experts, art lawyers, agents with the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol – and dozens of criminals he'd arrested or made contact with over the previous 15 years. His database also holds hundreds of pictures of stolen and forged artwork.

"This is all part of what I call 'Art Alert,' an early-warning system," he said. The idea was to electronically share as much information as possible with as many people in the art community, fast, in order to keep up with the organized criminal element.

"Criminals now have a lot of tools. They use auction houses and art galleries, and they are fast. A painting can be stolen here and sold across the world in a day. In those cases, it doesn't work if I file a report to Interpol and wait for them to send out that information. That can take months. With Art Alert, I can e-mail the auction houses directly. When I want to know something, I e-mail Christie's or Sotheby's in New York and in London. They know me now and they get back to me immediately."

Mr. Lacoursière became a lead source of intelligence in Canada and one of the few people in the world who understood the scope of international art theft. He said that smuggling art from one country to another was far easier than smuggling bank notes or bank drafts. Customs officials weren't trained properly to identify stolen art, and paintings were a breeze to move across oceans. That was good news for organized crime groups, he said, because paintings were being used more frequently as currency for the purchase of drugs and as payment on loans.

Between 2004 and 2007, Mr. Lacoursière and Sgt. Talbot opened 300 cases. In Quebec, art theft and crimes related to the black market are worth about $20-million annually, according to their data, but no statistics are available for any other province. At the end of 2008, Mr. Lacoursière retired.

Sgt. Talbot took over the Quebec unit, which expanded to include two more detectives. It is still the only force in Canada investigating art theft full-time. In 2011, the London-based Art Loss Register database held a list of more than 300,000 stolen artworks globally. In the U.S., the FBI had created its Art Crime Team, with a dedicated manager, and a special FBI website. The only municipal force in the U.S. with a dedicated art-crime detective is in Los Angeles, where Donald Hrycyk has recovered more than $80-million worth of stolen art over the last two decades.

"We have a very good picture of what's happening in the criminal world in terms of art," Mr. Lacoursière said, shortly before leaving the force. "Criminals use art in many different ways, for many different purposes. We know the Mafia and biker gangs have specialists for telemarketing, for fraud, for credit cards, and now they have specialists for art too."

He added: "There are 25 full-time art thieves working in this country that I know of. I arrested a guy who has been in prison in seven different countries, and he told me, 'I like Canada. If I get caught here, you have the nicest prisons.'"

Joshua Knelman is author of the book Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art, published this month by Douglas & McIntyre.