Alligator was surprised, and depressed, to meet the other day a young Melbourne arty-type person who had never heard of the Picasso ‘Weeping woman’ theft in 1986. Really? Has that extraordinary event gone to the memory hole too? OK, in the annals of artprank it is not as significant as the Ern Malley affair or the Demidenko affair (we do do a lot of it), but still, what a ride it was! Over three weeks, the whole city watched and waited as a grand blague played out, with ransom notes updates and all the rest. In the weeks to come we’ll explore the case, throw out some new clues, and maybe even suggest a suspect or two. But we’ve got one new rule. No more interviews! Every artist, politician and cop has been asked multiple times about this. The artists lie, and the pollies and cops don’t know much. We will try and work this out from the extant material. Strap in….

Ok for newbies. In 1985, the National Gallery of Victoria under bubbly head James McCaughey, purchased the ‘Weeping Woman’ a 1930s study by Picasso of his mistress Dora Moar, one of a set of five he did. The price was $1.6 million (about $10 million today), provided by the Cain Labor government. It came at the start of a huge drive by this progressive government to boost the arts. In 1986 it was followed by the start of the Melbourne Writers Festival, the ‘three worlds’ festival (which became the Melbourne International Festival), the resituating of the Playbox (now Malthouse) theatre in the Malthouse, and the start of the Comedy Festival. It was all go. 

Sadly, Melbourne’s young artists didn’t see it that way. There was money for new work in every art form – save for visual art itself, which had to make do with the purchase of a masterpiece. The arrival of the ‘Weeping Woman’ seemed very much part of a ‘world city’ strategy and part of the NGV’s commercialisation (it was in a period of blockbuster exhibitions, with its six month ‘Golden Summers’ Heidelberg school hit). For young artists in Melbourne, which had about eight schools at the time, in its myriad of tertiary colleges, it was almost an insult. Furthermore, the Melbourne art and theory world of Melbourne had spent a decade and a half debating the very meaning of ‘great art’, with a hardcore critical Marxist coterie arguing that even canonising great art amounted to a commodification of it. Journals like Art and Text, Arts Melbourne and Tension echoed with it. 

So when on the evening of Monday August 4, 1986 it was announced that the Weeping Woman, an NGV visitor drawcard for ten months had been stolen , the city as a whole was gobsmacked – but a hundred or so people in St Kilda and Inner Melbourne were far from surprised. The painting was noticed as missing on the Monday, around the same time that the Gallery was informed by The Age and the police that they had received a ‘ransom’ note claiming responsibility for the theft by a group called the ‘Australian Cultural Terrorists’. The painting’s empty frame had a white card in it saying ‘removed for cleaning – ACT’. From Saturday to Monday, guards and staff had walked past it, assuming it had been loaned to the National Gallery in the ACT. The ransom note – posted from around Blackburn in Melbourne’s north-east, presumably on the Saturday – seemed to fall neatly into two parts, the first and last section a mix of announcement and insult, addressed to the arts minister Race Mathews who was styles as ‘Rank Mathews’ (rank, as in rotten, being common slang of the day). In a strangely archaic diction, they claimed to have stolen the Picasso to protest the ‘niggardly’ funding of the arts, and noted that Mathews was also Minister of ‘Plod’ (ie police). 

The middle section of the note was in straighter diction, and no-nonsense. It announced that the Picasso would be destroyed unless the government announced five art prizes of $5000 (about $50,000 today) for young artists, and specified that the prizes be indexed for inflation. The government, the gallery and the city reeled. As police began to investigate, they sat down to wait for a possible next communique….of which more next week….

In the meantime, what can be said? First, the theft would have been readily doable by amateur thieves. The ‘weeping woman’ is mid-size – 55 cm by 46 cm – capable of going under a coat at the end of a Melbourne winter. It was contained in a small locking frame – which required a bespoke type of screwdriver to be opened. That, and the ease of access to the Gallery from the VCA National Gallery school, housed in the back of the gallery, suggested an inside job involving art students and past or present staff. Many students took jobs as security guards at the gallery. The ransom note dated the Picasso as ‘coming into our possession’, on Friday night, and it was thought that the thieves had come in through the gallery school. The official record suggests the theory that they hid themselves overnight and left the following morning, with the painting under a coat. Given the size of the painting, this has always seemed questionable – and it seems more likely that they went out through the gallery school that night. 

The composed nature of the ransom note text, its arrival by post on the Monday suggests a degree of pre-planning, rather than an ad hoc event followed up with on the spur of the moment. This is not impossible, but it’s a big stretch. The demands made point away from anyone involved in the critical Marxist side of the art and theory world – since they objected to the prize-and-scholarship system as much as to the ‘great works’. The demands (unless they are false direction) with their curious modesty and naivete, indicate current or former art students of the time, with fairly modest horizons. 

Tune in next week for the second note….