(CNN) – A famous portrait of British World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill has been stolen from an Ottawa hotel and replaced with a copy without staff noticing for months.
It took officials at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel at least eight months before they realized the photo, which could be worth more than $100,000, had been traded, CNN affiliate CTV reported.
“We are deeply saddened by this brazen act,” the hotel’s general manager, Geneviève Dumas, wrote in a Facebook post. “The hotel is incredibly proud to house this superb Karsh collection, which was safely installed in 1998.”
The portrait, created by Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh in 1941, is “one of the most reproduced images in the history of photography”, according to Karsh’s website. In 2016, the photo became the face of the Bank of England’s five pound note.
The original hung at the Chateau Laurier hotel until a date officials believe is likely between Dec. 25, 2021 and Jan. 6, 2022, the hotel’s general manager, Genevieve Dumas, told CTV.
Last weekend, hotel workers noticed the photograph was poorly hung and the frame didn’t match others in the space, CTV reported. Hotel officials later used photos submitted by the public to help determine when the original portrait and frame were removed.
The Chateau Laurier hotel’s marketing manager told CNN that an investigation into the portrait’s disappearance is ongoing.
The theft was likely an “inside job,” Robert Wittman, a former FBI art crimes investigator, told CTV.
“So usually when a situation like this happens, it’s not shoplifting, it’s not just burglary; it was someone inside who had access, who knew what they were looking for, knew what the security measures were that protected the room and who (they) were able to thwart these measures because they had information privileged,” Wittman told CTV.
The beloved black and white photograph captures a scowling Churchill moments after Karsh snatches a cigar from the Prime Minister’s mouth to take the shot.
“By the time I got back to my camera it looked so belligerent it could have eaten me up. That’s when I took the picture,” Karsh wrote of the photo. “I knew after taking it that it was an important photo, but I could hardly imagine that it would become one of the most reproduced images in the history of photography.”
The photographer lived and ran his studio from the hotel for two decades, according to his estate, and when he moved Karsh left a collection of his photographs, including that of Churchill, at the hotel.
“His association with the hotel was very deep and very warm,” Jerry Fielder, Karsh’s estate manager, told CTV. “It was a very special feeling for him, and it was a very nice feeling. So it has a very special meaning.
The Fairmont Château Laurier urged anyone with information about the stolen photograph to contact local authorities immediately.