The theft is only the second heist in the MMFA’s 152-year history and the incident is testing the facility’s policy of not encasing many of its items as well as the decades-long bond of trust it has with visitors – now numbering 500,000 a year.
A Persian sandstone bas-relief and a marble head dating from the Roman Empire were taken from the Mediterranean archeological exhibit room on the first floor of the Hornstein Pavilion on or about Oct. 26. The theft wasn’t made public until now so as not to compromise the investigation, the MMFA said.
Montreal police said Tuesday the investigation is continuing. One suspect – believed to be in his 30s and 5-feet, 7-inches tall – can be seen wandering the museum halls in surveillance video.
The Persian piece – donated to the MMFA by Cleveland Morgan in 1950 – is worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Mark Dalrymple, representing AXA Art, a global insurance company insuring the items for the Montreal museum.
The second piece – on loan since 2003 from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec – is worth “tens of thousands,” Dalrymple said.
“We’re interested in seeing if anybody could possibly recognize this man and point the finger at him and help the police,” he said about the security video.
The insurance company is offering a “substantial” reward for the return of the stolen objects and a $10,000 reward for anyone who can identify the suspect.
Danielle Champagne, a spokesperson for the MMFA, said security has been tightened in some areas of the museum since the theft.
But the museum does not plan any major changes to its policy of keeping many of its objects in open-air displays – anchored or attached, but not in cases – “so people get a better sense of the texture of the objects.
“We are blessed to live in a country where people are generally honest and we’ve had very few problems,” she added.
The only other theft at the museum was in 1972, when 18 paintings were stolen, including a Rembrandt. Only one of the paintings was recovered.
Cecily Hilsdale, a professor of art history at McGill University, said the Persian object’s theft is “huge” news in the art world.
The piece was part of the Apadana, a grand audience hall in Persepolis, the ancient city centre of the Persian empire.
The object is well-known, she added. Anyone purchasing it would lprobably want to know where it came from.
Anyone with information about the theft is urged to call police at 1-800-659-4264 or the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts at 1-855-471-1800.