A Winnipeg art dealer whose painting by Canadian master Jean-Paul Riopelle was stolen from a Toronto gallery says the heist was more sophisticated swindle than brutish burglary.
An untitled Riopelle from the 1950s was found this week in a Montreal home during a police raid, Quebec provincial police said Friday. The painting was stolen April 1 from the Toronto branch of Mayberry Fine Art, the gallery confirmed.
"It was a complete con job," said Shaun Mayberry, the Canadian art specialist of the Winnipeg-based art dealing family. "This theft was very cleverly orchestrated. Nothing in my 40 years experience prepared me for that; nothing like that has ever happened."
The Integrated Art Crime Investigation Team of the RCMP and Quebec provincial police released a photograph of a man they say is a chief suspect after they seized the painting. Provincial police spokeswoman Sergeant Mélanie Dumaresq said a person was questioned after the painting was seized in Montreal, but no arrests were made. "They're still investigating," she said.
The Riopelle painting, valued at about $225,000, was among the artist's oil-on-canvas abstract works completed in Paris in 1958 – the same year he rose in international prominence with an honourable mention from the Guggenheim International Award.
"It's a classic Riopelle canvas," Mr. Mayberry said. "One of the great postwar paintings from a period where he was very influential. It's a coveted period in the artist's career, and that makes it very desirable from a collector's point of view."
Mr. Mayberry said the thief was clearly aware of the painting's history when he walked into the gallery to conduct business, and was also intimately familiar with the transaction process for the purchase of a work of art worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a reputable gallery.
Both the police and Mr. Mayberry were reluctant to go too deeply into theft methodology, citing the continuing investigation and, in Mr. Mayberry's case, the security of other artworks. But he did say other galleries in Toronto have been victimized by similar frauds.
"These people were professionals, and we weren't alone in being victimized," Mr. Mayberry said. "Our communication, the transaction we conducted, there was nothing to suggest it was other than business-as-usual. Of course, in hindsight, I can now see gaps in our process."
Riopelle artworks have been a favourite target of thieves for years. In 2011, a bronze statue titled La Défaite (The Defeat) was stolen from near his former workshop in Estérel, Que. It was discovered smashed in a nearby forest. Several of his lithographs were stolen in the early 2000s from a Montreal art supply store and turned up on Kijiji in 2010.
Mr. Riopelle, who is revered in his home province of Quebec and died in 2002 at 78 years old, was a prolific artist who created very marketable works, art experts say. Stealing art is one thing – finding a buyer willing to pay big money for artworks of dubious provenance is another.
"There are people out there who will turn a blind eye, but if the motivation is financial gain, it's generally only a matter of time until someone gets tripped up," Mr. Mayberry said.