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The Sûreté du Québec and Montreal police recovered three Jean-Paul Riopelle paintings on Monday from a Montreal home after receiving a tip. (John Craven)
The Sûreté du Québec and Montreal police recovered three Jean-Paul Riopelle paintings on Monday from a Montreal home after receiving a tip. (John Craven)

Recovery of three stolen Riopelle paintings just tip of iceberg Add to ...

It’s a touch of high art that graces the crime pages at surprisingly frequent intervals: A Riopelle work is stolen and one more piece of the legacy of one of Canada’s greatest artists disappears into the underworld.

Then, occasionally, good news: The Sûreté du Québec and Montreal police recovered three paintings on Monday from a Montreal home after receiving a tip. They have not revealed the address or identity of who was holding the paintings. Investigators have made no arrests in the case and Sgt. Claude Denis of the SQ says an investigation is ongoing.

The crated paintings disappeared in 1999 from a warehouse just after clearing customs at a Montreal airport. They were in the process of being sold by an American gallery to a Montreal-based collector.

A search of public archives reveals no fewer than 19 cases of Riopelle artwork robbery in Canada between 1989 and 2015, and those are just cases made public. No Canadian artist was as famous as Jean-Paul Riopelle in the 1950s and ‘60s and none, it seems, a bigger target for theft since.

The draw of Riopelle works to thieves is a simple case of high supply, high profile and high demand. He had a prolific career before his death in 2002, he was globally famous for decades and his works routinely draw six-figure prices on the international market. His greatest paintings have sold for $1-million or more at least 14 times, but he also created hundreds of smaller, easy-to-carry works.

His, paintings, lithographs, sculptures and other works of art are scattered through homes, businesses and galleries around the world but especially in Quebec, where budgets for security aren’t always commensurate with the value of the works on display. Theft victims have ranged from major Montreal galleries to Westmount homes to a local museum in Baie-Saint-Paul, Que.

“He really was one of the biggest shooting stars among Canadian artists. For decades he was Canada’s most internationally known artist,” said Simon Blais, a Montreal art dealer and Riopelle expert who was first immersed in the artist’s work 38 years ago. “But his draw isn’t limited to the legitimate world. Just the name brings so much attention. In 2002 I opened a new gallery with a Riopelle show and within two weeks I had a break-in. Some look at art for its beauty, some for monetary value. And everybody knows Riopelle.”

The thefts over the years have ranged from professional to laughably inept to tragically dumb. In 2010, a thief tried to sell some lithographs stolen from a Montreal art shop on Kijiji. In 2011, two 1963 bronze statues worth $1-million were stolen by scrap-metal scavengers from Mr. Riopelle’s workshop. At 450 kilograms they were too heavy to move very far and ended up broken in a field. The sculpture stolen in Baie-Saint-Paul in the late 1990s ended up in pieces in a dumpster after the thief panicked and ran.

Art is currency for Quebec’s biker and Mafia gangs who have their own internal trade on the prestigious items. In the early 2000s when police were cracking down on organized crime in Quebec, they found a bronze Riopelle bust at a gang member’s home. A 2006 drug raid in Quebec City uncovered 2,500 paintings in a warehouse, some of them by Mr. Riopelle. The art was used to launder drug money.

Mr. Blais said art trades in the underworld for about 5 per cent to 10 per cent of its market value, but that’s still plenty of motivation. “If you owe the Mafia money and you don’t have it, a stolen painting provides a handy way to get out of it,” he said. “Paintings are light to handle, relatively easy to rob and for criminals they’re like money in the bank.”

Every Riopelle piece has a special significance. The works recovered Monday, which included two untitled pieces and another 49-by-54 centimetre paper-on-canvas piece named Eskimo Mark, were sought by art dealers because they represent Mr. Riopelle’s early use of an opaque watercolour known as “gouache.”

“They show him striking off in a new direction,” Mr. Blais said.

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