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Canada: Famous Winston Churchill 'Roaring Lion portrait goes missing from Ottawa hotel replaced fake

An employee at the Château Laurier in Ottawa spotted something a miss with ‘Roaring Lion’ portrait by photographer Yousuf Karsh

Police in Canada are investigating the “brazen” heist of a famed Sir Winston Churchill portrait after the original photograph was mysteriously swapped for a fake.

Last week, an employee at the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa, noticed something amiss with a portrait known as the “Roaring Lion” which was taken after the wartime leader addressed the Canadian parliament in 1941.

The frame on the photograph didn’t match the other five portraits in the room, all of which had been taken by the acclaimed Canadian-Armenian portraitist Yousuf Karsh, whose subjects included Martin Luther King Jr, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Queen Elizabeth II.

The hotel contacted Jerry Fielder, who oversees Karsh’s estate, to assess the signature on the suspect print. “I’ve seen that signature for 43 years. So it took me just one second to know that someone had tried to copy it,” Fielder told the Guardian. “It was a fake.”

Once the theft was discovered, the Ottawa police were notified and began investigating. “We are deeply saddened by this brazen act,” the Fairmont hotel said in a statement, adding that it was proud of its “stunning” collection of Karsh prints. It is unclear when the print of Churchill, which has hung in the hotel for 24 years, first went missing.

The hotel was gifted 15 original works by Karsh, six of which were in the lounge. The remaining five have recently been removed until they can be properly secured, the hotel said.

Fielder, who worked closely with Karsh, says the photographer had a long relationship with the hotel. It hosted his first-ever exhibition in 1936 and he and his wife lived on the third floor for nearly two decades. He also had a studio on the sixth floor until 1992.

Karsh, whose fled the Armenian genocide with his family and spent much of his life in Canada, was renowned for his mastery of image-making, both in the studio and when working with his subjects.

“For the kinds of people that he photographed, they could spot a sycophant or a phoney a mile away. And when you were with Yousuf, you knew right away he was the real thing. And I think it allows people to feel that they can be themselves,” he said. “He just had a way with people and putting them at ease,” The image of a scowling Churchill was an “exception”, said Fielder.

After watching Churchill give an “electrifying” speech to the Canadian parliament in 1941, Karsh waited in the speaker’s chambers for the chance to take a portrait of Churchill and the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King. But when the two entered the room with arms linked, Churchill “growled”, Karsh later recalled.

“I timorously stepped forward and said, ‘Sir, I hope I will be fortunate enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.’ He glanced at me and demanded, ‘Why was I not told?’”

Karsh recalled Churchill lighting a fresh cigar, puffing it “with a mischievous air” and then relenting to allow a single photograph.

“I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and 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. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

The portrait, which “went viral, but in a slower form” said Fiedler, was used on the British five-pound note in 2016.

“Obviously, this theft was very carefully planned. I don’t know if someone, some super-fan, maybe, wanted this to hang in their living room. But it’s also very valuable. I assumed it was stolen for its value,” said Fielder. No prints of Karsh’s work have been allowed since his negatives were given to Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s.

“We don’t allow reproductions,” said Fielder. “We don’t allow copies.”

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