DOWNTOWN — British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “A joke is a very serious thing.”

Tell that to the thief that made off with a prized painting of the great World War II statesman that prominently hung in the Ye Old King’s Head Pub since the popular British establishment opened its doors on Santa Monica Boulevard 35 years ago.

The suspect snatched the large oil painting of Churchill roughly two weeks ago when the pub’s staff was most vulnerable —between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. when the restaurant is closed but the bar is hopping.

“Someone came into the restaurant from the pub and took it while no one was looking,” said King’s Head general manager Dusty Kerr.

The pub’s owners have decided not to phone the police, instead opting to handle the theft by themselves by offering a reward for the painting’s return. Kerr would not disclose how much is being offered, but she did say no questions will be asked.

The value of the painting is unknown.

“If it was just a prank, bring it back and we will not prosecute,” Kerr said. “We just want the painting back.”

The painting, which came over from England when the original owner, Phil Elwell, opened the pub and put it on the main wall of the restaurant’s dining room, portrays a troubled Churchill above a stark cityscape shrouded in smoke. Behind him is a torn Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, which is hung upside down to symbolize the danger and turmoil Britons faced during the great war.

For decades, the painting hung over loyal customers as they dined on fish and chips and kidney pies. Kerr said the theft has ironically been good for business as those same customers have come back wanting to get a good look at the crime scene.

“A lot of people know that painting,” Kerr said.

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