“You may take one,” Winston Churchill told Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh as he sat before him after delivering a speech in Ottawa in 1941. But Churchill puffed a cigar, which interfered with the photograph Karsh envisioned. After various attempts to persuade the British prime minister to put it out, Karsh walked up to him, said “Forgive me sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his hands. “By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,” Karsh later recalled. “It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
That photograph, known as the Roaring Lion, went on to become one of the most widely reproduced images ever—even appearing on England’s five-pound note. Now, it’s making headlines again: Earlier this month, a luxury hotel in Ottawa, Canada, discovered that its signed original print of the iconic Churchill portrait had been stolen—and replaced with a fake.
On the night of August 19, an employee at the hotel, the Fairmont Château Laurier, noticed that the frame containing their prized print did not match the other frames on the wall. The hotel called Jerry Fielder, director of Karsh’s estate, who requested a photo of the signature.
“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 tells the Guardian’s Leyland Cecco. “It was a fake.”
Hotel officials say that the photograph was stolen about eight months ago. Genevieve Dumas, the hotel’s general manager, tells CTV News that based on images submitted by the public, they’ve narrowed down the date of the heist to somewhere between December 25, 2021 and January 6, 2022. The hotel is asking anyone who has images of the photograph taken around that time to send them in.
As Fielder tells the New York Times’ Livia Albeck-Ripka and McKenna Oxenden, the only person who made prints from the original negatives of Karsh’s photos was Karsh himself. When he closed his studio in 1992, his negatives went to Library and Archives Canada, and no copies were allowed. In 2020, another signed copy of a Roaring Lion original print sold for $62,500 at a Sotheby’s auction.
Why was a Canadian hotel in possession of such a treasured artifact? The Fairmont Château Laurier was more than just a hotel to Karsh. He held his first exhibition there in 1936. He then opened his photography studio there in 1972. In 1980, he and his wife, Estrellita Karsh, moved in. Karsh, who died in 2002, gifted the Fairmont a number of signed original prints, including the Churchill portrait.
“We traveled so much it was difficult to keep up a big home,” Estrellita Karsh, now 92, tells the Times. “I loved it, because a hotel is like a little city.” Stealing the photograph is “a sad and stupid thing,” she adds. “I hope they apprehend the person.”
Ottawa police are investigating the theft, per CBC News’ Sara Frizzell.
Speaking to USA Today’s Saleen Martin, hotel manager Dumas says: “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.”