Exploring Sudbury's Stolen Masterpieces: 50 Years Later

Did you know one of Canada's most famous art heists took place in Sudbury? The two stolen Group of Seven paintings by A.Y. Jackson have never been recovered—but 50 years later, locals are still on the hunt.
a black and white photograph of artist A.Y. Jackson working at his painting easel.

If you took a stroll along College Street, Baker Street, and MacKenzie Street in in Sudbury, Ontario, you might pop into the city’s main library or admire the Alex Trebek mural, which memorializes the city’s most famous son. Perhaps you’d duck into the Indie Cinema to see what films were playing, or maybe you’d just enjoy a quiet stroll along the tree-lined streets next to Sudbury Secondary School.

You definitely wouldn’t think you’re at the scene of one of Canada’s most perplexing art heists, but nothing about this 50-year-old case plays out like you’d expect.

Once upon a time, there were two schools where Sudbury Secondary now stands: Sudbury High School and the Sheridan Technical School. Like many adjacent schools, the two were fierce rivals, but by 1974, they had amalgamated. When the two institutions came together, so did their art collection—and what an art collection!

The A.Y. Jackson Paintings 

For nearly 20 years, a painting by A.Y. Jackson (yes, that A.Y. Jackson, member of the famed Group of Seven painters) hung on the walls of the Sheridan. Entitled Spring On The Onaping River, the piece was purchased by students in 1955 to honour Sheridan principal L.E.R. Stevens. They acquired the painting for a mere $350, a bargain even before the Group of Seven commanded international fame. Part of the great deal was undoubtedly thanks to Jackson’s personal relationship with the students. In 1953, with art teacher Jack Smith at the helm, students went to the nearby Onaping River with Jackson to sketch the waterfalls. Spring On The Onaping River was a larger rendition of a sketch Jackson did that day.

A photo of A.Y. Jackson's painting titled "Spring on the Onaping River"; a painting using browns, golds and blues of a low mountain with a gentle waterfall trailing down it, and some conifer forest. A photo of the Onaping River; a gentle waterfall that runs into a large pool surrounded by green forest and rocky shores.
Left: This is a sketch of the original Group of Seven masterpiece that was stolen. It is the first colour view of what the missing A. Y. Jackson painting "Spring on the Onaping River" looks like.—Kivi Park Facebook // Right: The Onaping River, inspiration for Jackson's work (photo credit: Rainbow Routes).

Meanwhile, another A.Y. Jackson piece was on display next door at Sudbury High School. A Windy Day—Lake Superior was purchased in 1959 to commemorate teacher Gerard Castonguay, who passed away two years prior. The memorial to Castonguay was especially poignant. The popular teacher went home during the mid-day break to have lunch with his wife, Charlotte, at the boarding house they operated. He was murdered by one of the boarders, who also killed Charlotte and injured several police officers.

After the schools were amalgamated, the two paintings were placed on display in Sudbury Secondary’s administration office—they were stolen on August 9, 1974. After an initial flurry of tips, the leads petered out and the paintings haven’t been seen since. Sadly, all colour photographs of the pieces have also gone missing over the years.

The Group of Seven Heist: Theories

Could the theft be a result of student hijinks? Perhaps what started as a jovial prank suddenly turned serious in the face of so much media attention, and the mischief makers couldn’t return the pieces as planned? Did someone associated with the school take advantage of the hubbub around the amalgamation, thinking that the busy merger might give them some cover? Or was a more calculating force at work? A.Y. Jackson himself passed away only months before the heist, in April 1974. Is it possible that professional art thieves knew the value of Jackson’s work would rise exponentially after his death, and they targeted the school as a low-security mark? No doubt many are hoping that the missing works will reappear as mysteriously as they vanished but unfortunately the odds aren’t in favour of it. An astonishingly low amount of missing artwork is ever recovered, with some estimates pegging it at about 15%.

The Legacy of the Theft

Sudbury Secondary School; a long, single-story brick building with a vivid purple and orange sunset in the background.
 Sudbury Secondary School, still passionate about the arts.

On second thought, perhaps the odds do favour Sudbury Secondary School after all. While the art is gone, the community’s commitment to keeping the story alive remains strong. In recent years, the baffling theft has been immortalized in a play and has been the subject of public awareness campaigns by the outdoor enthusiasts who love the city’s Kivi Park and even the student council at Sudbury Secondary. And anyone who happens to visit the Onaping River and enjoy the stunning view from the lookout will be reminded of what happened. The plaque says:

“In 1953, A.Y. Jackson, one of the founding members of the Group of Seven, visited this site and painted Spring On The Onaping River. Two years later the painting was purchased by a group of students and placed in the Sudbury Secondary School. Shortly after Jackson’s death in April of 1974 the painting was stolen and has not been recovered.”

Where to See Art in Sudbury

Interior of the Art Gallery of Sudbury; a white brick wall in a dimmed gallery, hung with a long row of beautiful nature paintings under spotlights.
The Art Gallery of Sudbury puts on exquisite exhibitions of local, provincial, and national works of art, and also offers painting opportunities to the public.

Thankfully, this unsolved mystery hasn’t dampened Sudbury’s enthusiasm for art. The Sudbury Art Gallery (itself home to multiple Group of Seven paintings, including works by A.Y Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, and Frederick Varley, and their mentor, Tom Thomson) offers painting excursions to the nearby Onaping River where you can paint the exact scene that inspired Jackson all those years ago. Don’t worry if you’re not exactly Canada’s next great watercolourist! These are family-friendly excursions that are as much about embracing the beauty of nature as they are exploring artistic techniques. If you’re really hankering to get a better sense of Jackson’s technique, there are two pieces on display at the Copper Cliff Public Library, including 1953’s Onaping River, Near Levack. (Don’t worry, there’s a locked display case and an alarm system!)

If your tastes are more modern, you can enjoy a self-guided tour of the city’s famous murals (with the portrait of Alex Trebeck taking a starring role!) You can also enjoy some great theatre, thanks to none other than Sudbury Secondary School! The school is renowned for its arts program and frequently stages plays. Members of the public are often invited to purchase tickets to their productions. If their schedule doesn’t line up with yours, never fear. YES Theatre offers a robust lineup of concerts, musicals, and more at two venues. In the summer, check out the Up Here Festival—a celebration of independent urban art that takes place all across the city. For more places to see art in Sudbury, check out our weekend itinerary for art lovers.

A large outdoor mural of Alex Trebek; a smiling man with brown hair and a moustache wearing a brown suit and tie in front of a turquoise and yellow patterned background.
The famed mural of Alex Trebek, by Kevin Ledo, 2021, on the wall of the Sudbury Secondary School.

A Happy Ending, Of Sorts

While Spring on the Onaping River and A Windy Day—Lake Superior remain elusive, this story has a bit of a happy ending. Several years after the heist, the school board received a settlement from their insurance company. The money was used to establish an art endowment fund for the school. One of their purchases? Why, a Group of Seven, of course. A piece by Jackson’s colleague, A.J. Casson, is rumoured to be part of the school’s collection. Naturally, the school isn’t open for browsing but it’s nice to know that the Group of Seven’s artistic legacy lives on all the same.

About Vanessa Chiasson

Vanessa Chiasson is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, and blogger bringing warmth and depth to travel and human interest narratives. In the industry since 2012, Vanessa helps other writers with their business planning. She chronicles her cozy travel adventures at TurnipseedTravel.com.

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