Who stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman?
Here’s a tale of two art thefts – Oslo and Melbourne. In the former instance, Norway jailed the thieves but the masterpiece is still missing. Australia got its masterpiece back but the thieves are still at large. As my first contribution to Crikey as its arts correspondent, I’d like to issue a challenge to the […]
As my first contribution to Crikey as its arts correspondent, I'd like to issue a challenge to the Crikey Army to help solve one of these art mysteries. As reported in the Guardian Online, a court in Oslo has convicted three men in connection with the 2004 theft of Edvard Munch's most famous work, The Scream. The men were jailed for between four and eight years over the robbery at the Munch Museum from which another Munch painting, Madonna, was also stolen.
The convictions don't resolve the mystery as to the whereabouts of the paintings, which remain missing despite a $415,000 reward for their recovery. In Melbourne, meanwhile, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the theft of Picasso's Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.
The 55 centimetre by 46 centimetre oil-on-canvas painting was nicked from the NGV on the weekend of 2-3 August 1986 and, after a tip off, was recovered unharmed a fortnight later in a locker at Spencer St Station.
A group calling itself The Australian Cultural Terrorists claimed responsibility for the theft and threatened to burn the painting unless the Victorian Government bowed to its demands: increased arts funding and the establishment of an annual $25,000 art prize to be called the Picasso Ransom.
The government ignored the demands and, instead, offered a $50,000 reward for information about the theft. The so-called art terrorists – more than likely just a bunch of naughty boys – fell way short of carrying out their threat. They wrapped the picture in brown paper, placed it in Locker 227 at Spencer St and tipped off the media.
While it caused the then director of the NGV, Patrick McCaughey, a great deal of anguish, the Weeping Woman saga is affectionately remembered by some sections of the art world as more than just a daring stunt. It was seen as a piece of performance art with a very serious purpose – bringing attention to a cultural cringe that celebrated the work of dead foreigners at the expense of local contemporary artists.
I have mixed feelings about that interpretation. It could be argued that stealing a foreign masterpiece to advance the cause of local art is as much a product of the cultural cringe as the official policies the thieves were trying to change. Many people have strong suspicions as to the identity of the culprits and I know two of the people whose names keep cropping up in association with the theft. Both are reasonably competent artists who have gone on to build moderately successful careers providing decoration for the homes of well-heeled but unimaginative collectors. That they felt their work was deserving of as much attention as Picasso's is laughable in the extreme.
No-one's ever had the smoking-gun evidence to publicly name either of these artists, or anyone else for that matter, in connection with the 20-year-old heist, and the new defamation laws aren't liberal enough for me to name anyone here. But I'm happy to receive tips from anyone out there who might help build a body of evidence to safely identify the baddies (or the goodies, depending on your view).
I'm also happy to receive any information from the Crikey Army about any matters cultural. You can reach me at [email protected]