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Police cracking down on a hotbed of hot art in Quebec Add to ...

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.

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