Famed Winston Churchill photo stolen from Canada hotel

The Roaring Lion is one of the most famous images taken of the late British prime minister

The 'Roaring Lion' portrait of Sir Winston Churchill was taken by Armenian-born Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. Photo: Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel
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The theft of a famed portrait of a scowling Winston Churchill has enthralled Canada since it was discovered that the photograph hanging in an Ottawa hotel for decades had been swapped for a fake.

Police were called in after staff at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa last Friday noticed the picture of the late British prime minister was askew and did not match those of other portraits given as gifts by the late Armenian-born Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh.

The "Roaring Lion" portrait was taken by Karsh after the wartime leader addressed the Canadian parliament in 1941, becoming a symbol of British defiance in the Second World War.

The Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: D Gordon Robertson

As speculation swirls over the theft, former hotel guests have shared their snaps of the portrait over the years, helping to narrow down the date when it could have gone missing from December 25, 2021 to January 6, 2022.

"Somebody probably wanted that picture either for their private collection or to sell it. I don't know," said Genevieve Dumas, general manager at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

The portrait is estimated to be worth $100,000 but Ms Dumas said it was priceless.

"It means a lot to us," she said. "It's part of Karsh history, the hotel's history, as well as Canadian and British wartime history.

"We're deeply saddened by this brazen theft. We just hope to get it back."

Karsh and his wife, after fleeing the Armenian genocide and settling in Canada, lived at the hotel for 18 years. He also had a studio there until 1992.

His other portrait subjects included the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Queen Elizabeth II.

According to historical accounts, Karsh plucked a cigar from Churchill's mouth just before taking his portrait, which made the British premier grimace.

The image is arguably the most famous of Churchill and widely circulated, even appearing on the British £5 note.

"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," Karsh said on his website.

Ms Dumas described how maintenance staff had been the first to notice something was not right with the portrait, which was hung in a reading room adjacent to the main lobby.

The hotel, which hosted Karsh's first exhibition in 1936, also confirmed with the photographer's estate that a signature on the print was a fake.

Police are now reviewing security footage but because the theft occurred when Covid-19 restrictions were in place, Ms Dumas said the probably likely wore a mask.

Updated: August 24, 2022, 9:37 PM
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