- Employees at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Canada noticed a famous portrait of former British prime minister Winston Churchill wasn’t hung properly.
- They soon realized it was a fake, switched out for the real one, and an investigation was launched.
- Photographer Yousuf Karsh credits the portrait with changing his life.
A famous portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appears to have found himself at the center of a heist.
The portrait, on display at the Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa, Canada, was documented by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1941 and installed in 1998, the hotel posted on Facebook Monday.
The hotel said the photograph was replaced with a copy of the original.
It discovered the switch when a maintenance employee who cares for the hotel artwork and photography noticed the photo wasn’t aligned properly on the wall, said Geneviève Dumas, the hotel’s general manager. Hotel staff removed the photo from the wall, and that’s when they noticed something was wrong wrong.
The portrait is supposed to be locked into the wall by four anchors, but it wasn’t.
“It’s a very sophisticated device,” Dumas told USA TODAY. “It was not anchored. … It was actually hanging from a wire like anybody would have at home.”
She also said the replacement photo is smaller than the original because it doesn’t line up with the wall anchors, and the frame is different compared to others in the collection.
But perhaps one of the most compelling giveaways is the signature.
When the hotel contacted the director of Karsh’s estate, he immediately knew it wasn’t the original portrait. The hotel also sent him a photo of Karsh’s signature, and estate representatives said it had been forged, Dumas confirmed.
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The hotel asked those with information to share it with Ottawa police.
Dumas said there’s lots of security at the hotel, including cameras, so management has sent evidence to the police.
She spends lots of time showing guests the portrait, and it’s common for people to take photos with it. Because of this, the hotel asked people who have photos of it to send them in. Investigators can compare the portrait in guest photos, distinguish the real one from the fake one, and possibly figure out when the switch was made.
Hotel management believes the portrait was nabbed between Christmas Day and Jan. 6, 2022, Dumas said Wednesday.
‘I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture’
In the famous photo, the former prime minister stares into the lens stoically, his left hand on his hip as his right hand rests on a chair.
Karsh, the 20th-century photographer who took the photo, said that day changed his life, and his website offers an intimate look into the moments leading up to him taking the portrait.
“I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography,” he said in an excerpt on his website.
According to the photographer, Churchill had visited Washington and then Ottawa; Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King invited Karsh to join, so he waited in the speaker’s chamber, where his lights and camera had been set up the night before.
King walked into the chamber, his arms interlocked with Churchill’s, and when Karsh turned on his floodlights, Churchill demanded, “What’s this?”
Karsh timidly asked if he could take his portrait to celebrate the “historic occasion,” to which Churchill asked why he wasn’t told about the photo beforehand.
After laughter from onlookers, Churchill lit and puffed a fresh cigar, then agreed to have his photo taken. But the cigar, noticeably absent, seems to be the reason for Churchill’s disturbed expression in the photo, according to Karsh’s recollection.
The photographer held out an ashtray so Churchill could nix the cigar, but he continued smoking. Karsh waited a bit more, and then “plucked the cigar out of his mouth.”
“By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,” he said. “It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
Dumas said Karsh ran a studio at the hotel from 1972 to 1992. The Karsh family also lived at the hotel for 18 years from 1980 to 1998.
The photographer gave the hotel the original portrait, and there are about 15 others in the hotel. They have been removed until management can figure out what happened, Dumas said.
If anyone knows what happened, she hopes they come forward.
“Maybe somebody went somewhere for dinner and was bragging about their beautiful Winston Churchill picture,” she said. “Come forward. … It would be sad to leave that piece of history and that iconic symbol somewhere (other than) where it belongs, which is here at the Fairmont Château Laurier.”
Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.