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Three paintings stolen from the University of Toronto

Church of Santa Maria della Salute by Francesco Guardi is one of three paintings reported missing by the University of Toronto, though the frames were left behind. Police say they believe the same thief (or thieves) is responsible.

Toronto police are investigating the recent theft of three paintings from the University of Toronto, including one by the 18th-century Italian master Francesco Guardi, two of whose works have sold for tens of millions of dollars at auction in the last four years.

At this stage, police believe the thefts, done between Jan. 30 and Feb. 10, are likely the work of the same person, a spokesperson said Friday. The Guardi, a Venetian view painting titled Church of Santa Maria della Salute, was taken from Trinity College on a date a Trinity official declined to reveal Friday. The others – Morning at Peggy's Cove by William E. deGarthe and Credit River by Yee Bon – were removed on, respectively, Feb. 3 and the Feb. 7-8 weekend from Victoria University, according to Gillian Pearson, curator of the collection. In each instance, the thief or thieves left the painting's frame behind.

It's presumed the Guardi is the most valuable of the trio. Just how valuable, however, is unclear as information on its dimensions, date of creation (Guardi lived from 1712 to 1793), exhibition history and provenance have yet to be disclosed.

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A huge Guardi from the early 1780s, A View of the Rialto Bridge Looking North, 115 centimetres by 200 measurement , sold for a record $41.2-million at auction in London in 2011. Another, smaller painting (70 cm by 100), Venice, the Bacino di San Marco with the Piazzetta and the Doge's Palace, went for $18.1-million at Christie's auctioneers London last July.

The missing Yee Bon, an early autumn landscape, is 29.5 cm by 35.5 and was painted in 1931 or 1932. It came into Victoria's collection as a bequest in the late 1940s. In recent years, the painting was stored in a room "that's usually locked," Ms. Pearson said, "but it's also used for events and [on Feb. 7-8] there were a number of groups in." Born in China in 1905, Yee came to Canada in 1918, enrolling in art school in Toronto in 1931. He lived in Hong Kong from 1935 on, returning in 1956 to mainland China where he died in 1995. Individual paintings by the artist tend to sell in the mid-five figures.

The Finnish-born deGarthe spent most of his life in Nova Scotia, dying at 75 in 1983. His stolen work, an Impressionist-like view of his beloved Peggy's Cove, is 16 cm by 21. Painted circa 1956, it too entered Victoria's collection as a bequest, in the early 1990s, and was housed just out of security-camera range at the university's E.J. Pratt Library. A 46-cm-by-61-cm deGarthe sold at auction in Canada in 2011 for $2,340.

Interpol ranks art theft as the world's third biggest criminal activity, behind drugs and arms-trafficking. By some estimates, the value of the art stolen each year is in excess of $6-billion.

However, it's rare for thieves to score a big payday from their loot. Serious collectors like their purchases to have clear title, good provenance and, more often than not, they want to be able to show the works to friends, fellow collectors, art institutions and the public without the taint of criminality. When they do occasionally make a sale, it's often not worth it: A Rembrandt self-portrait, lifted from the Swedish National Museum in 2000, had an appraised value of close to $40-million at the time of its theft. However, it took five years to sell and went for $250,000 – to an undercover FBI agent.

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James More

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