Theft of Famous Winston Churchill Portrait Went Unnoticed for Months

The photo was taken in 1941

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill is not amused.
Yousuf Karsh

Some photographs of public figures have, over time, become as recognizable as famous paintings or sculptures. For advocates for photography’s importance as an artistic medium, that’s good news indeed. But when it comes to questions of theft, there’s one sizable downside to photographs — it can be a lot easier to substitute a reproduction for a valuable photo than it would be for a painting.

Consider the saga of the Fairmont Château Laurier, a visually striking hotel located in Ottawa. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, the hotel was also home to an original print of a 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, dubbed the Roaring Lion. Yousuf Karsh took the photograph of Churchill after he had given a speech in the city, and took Churchill’s cigar away from him before taking the famed photograph — thus capturing a world leader at his most furious.

The print had hung in the hotel for the last 24 years, according to The Guardian. Well — almost. Earlier this month, a hotel employee discovered a discrepancy between the framed photo and the frames used elsewhere in the hotel. They sent an image of the signature on the back of the print to the director of Yousuf Karsh’s estate, who confirmed that the signature was a fake.

The hotel has since taken down several other photos by Karsh. An investigation suggests that the Churchill portrait was removed between December 25, 2021 and January 6, 2022. As for why the print was stolen, the Smithsonian article suggests one motive, pointing out that another signed original was sold at auction in 2020 for $62,500.

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