CRIKEY: To catch a thief: who stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman?



To catch a thief: who stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman?

For the police who investigated the crime, the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) remains one of their most mysterious and baffling unsolved cases. Freelance journalist Angus Smith enters the refined world of high art to try to solve the crime.

The heist

Picasso’s Weeping Woman was mounted on the wall of the National Gallery of Victoria when its doors closed at 5pm on Saturday, August 2, 1986. When the doors opened again the next morning, it was gone.

The thieves left a calling card in its place. It looked like the regular “location cards” used by the gallery, so, at first, staff thought the painting had simply been moved. The theft went unnoticed until the press received a tip-off on Monday, August 4.

“My jaw dropped,” says Race Mathews. At the time of the theft, Mathews was both minister for the arts and police in Victoria.

The tip-off came in the form of a ransom letter, addressed to Mathews — unkindly titled “Rank Mathews” — from a group calling itself the “Australian Cultural Terrorists” (ACT).

The letter stated, “We have stolen the Picasso from the National Gallery as a protest against the niggardly funding of the fine arts in this hick State and against the clumsy, unimaginative stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.”

The letter requested an increase in arts funding by 10%, a review of spending priorities and an annual prize for painting open to artists under 30 years, to be called “The Picasso Ransom”. If the demands were not met, the ACT threatened they would destroy the painting.

Mathews says at first authorities were worried it might have been stolen by international art thieves, and there was concern that it would be smuggled out of the country. A call for information from the public went nowhere. “We didn’t get information — what we got were the [ransom] letters.”

Mathews was perplexed about the demands of the letter, as he said the mid-‘80s were good years for the arts. He says it had the feeling of a student prank, “yet it was hard to believe anybody but a professional had got it out of that building”. The special screwdriver used to remove the painting from the NGV walls was not publicly available.

“The initial decision was that both possibilities would have to be followed up … that it had been stolen by professional art thieves and the possibility that the substance of the letters was genuine.”

“It was a headache, and still is a headache because it is sitting in the cold case file. I can’t imagine it is a long way up the police priority list these days,” he laughs.

A week later, a second ransom letter arrived containing a threatening burnt match. “Once the letters began to be taken seriously there was a real concern that the perpetrators, for lack of a better term, might panic and destroy it,” Mathews says.

The letters also unkindly described Mathews as a “pompous fathead” and a “tiresome old bag of swamp gas”.

“I was a bit surprised by the flavour of the letters,” Matthews says. “I don’t think that anything in my past or time in the portfolio would quite have justified the hostility ‘the old swamp gas’ bit,” he chuckles.

Then, just over a fortnight after the theft, the painting turned up in locker No. 227 at Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station on Tuesday, August 19, 1986.

I asked Mathews what his message to the thieves would be, was it time for them to come clean and fess up? A mischievous smile broke across his face “I can’t safely say all is forgiven,” he says.

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