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 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]