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Pablo Picasso
Weeping woman (1937)
Medium: oil on canvas
Measurements: 55.2 x 46.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Nearly 30 years ago, in December 1985, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) purchased Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman for a then record-breaking $1.6 million – the most any Australian gallery had ever spent on a painting. 8 months later, in August 1986, it was the NGV who was doing the weeping. The Picasso had been stolen, removed from its frame and a card left in its place with the message, ‘Borrowed by the ACT’. Now for most people ‘ACT’ usually stands for Australian Capital Territory where Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is located. Had the painting gone to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra? Finding the discarded frame 30 metres from where the painting was hung quickly discounted that theory. The mystery behind the acronym ‘ACT’ was soon revealed when the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, contacted the NGV to advise them that a group named the Australian Cultural Terrorists had sent them a letter accepting responsibility for the theft and had also made the following demands: “a 10 per cent increase in arts funding and an annual prize for painting open to artists under 30, consisting of five prizes of $5000 each. At the end of seven days if our demands have not been met the painting will be destroyed and our campaign will continue.” Did I mention that $1.6 million was paid for the painting? And that it was funded by the taxpayers of Victoria? Ouch! Things were looking grim for the Weeping Woman and for the NGV with its director at the time, Patrick McCaughey, stating that “If the picture is damaged or ruined in any way this gallery will never be able to afford another Picasso painting.” In a curious twist of fate the then Victorian Arts Minister, Race Mathews, who was responsible for the NGV, was also the Police Minister and, just like his name, the race was on to find the painting before it was destroyed. Mathews was able to bring in as much police assistance as required – he was responsible for the police too!

A few days later, a second letter was received. It repeated the threat contained in the first letter that the painting would soon be destroyed if the demands were not met. A burnt match stick was enclosed, emphasising the threat. Time was running out. The deadline was only days away and the police had no leads. For McCaughey, the priority was more about getting the painting back than getting a prosecution for theft. In his 2003 memoir, The Bright Shapes and the True Names, McCaughey recounts the story of the Weeping Woman’s theft and of a peculiar turn of events that transpired. Not long after the theft, he had been contacted by a Melbourne art dealer who felt that an artist she knew may know something about the case. McCaughey went and met with this artist who, unfortunately, was not able to shed any new light on the whereabouts of the painting.  During their conversation, however, McCaughey did mention a couple times that “the people who had taken the work could deposit it in a luggage locker at Spencer Street railway station or at Tullamarine airport.” A couple of days after this meeting, The Age received a call from a spokesperson for the Australian Cultural Terrorists informing them that “the Weeping Woman was in locker 227 at Spencer Street railway station.” The painting, an example of the art form known as Cubism, was indeed recovered inside the cube-like space of that locker. It was thankfully undamaged and accompanied by a third letter from the ‘ACT’ which stated that, “Of course we never looked to have our demands met… Our intention was always to bring to public attention the plight of a group which lacks any of the legitimate means of blackmailing governments.” To this day no one knows who the Australian Cultural Terrorists were, but at least we know where the Weeping Woman is.

–Vicki Oliveri

Eight years.
Eight years since A Cavalier (self portrait) was last seen in public.
Eight years ago person(s) unknown stole this Dutch masterpiece.
Eight years.
No news. No leads. No trace.
Someone out there knows something.
Someone out there knows where A Cavalier is.
Please don’t wait another eight years to come forward.
-V.O.art-a24-20cavalier-420x0

With the recent Remembrance Day commemorations still echoing in my mind and the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day Centenary to be celebrated next year on the 25th of April, my thoughts turned to one of my favourite paintings. Titled The sock knitter, it is the year of its creation, 1915, which points to its significance. The lady in the painting, like many women of her generation, was knitting socks to send over to her loved ones serving on the battlefields of World War 1. The painting acts as a poignant reminder of the love, courage and dedication shown by family members on the home-front, unsure if their loved ones would return. Many did not.
Painted by a 23 year old Grace Cossington Smith, this work was her first painting to be exhibited and is considered the first fully Post-Impressionist work painted in Australia.

Grace Cossington Smith (Australia 1892 – 20 Dec 1984)
Title: The sock knitter (1915)
Place of origin: Turramurra → Sydney → New South Wales → Australia
Media category: Painting
Materials used: oil on canvas
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

The sock knitter is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – which was also home to Frans van Mieris’s A Cavalier (self portrait) and, like van Mieris, Grace Cossington Smith’s work was also the victim of an art theft – one of the most baffling cases in Australia, in fact. Baffling in that the theft occurred on April 4, 1977 and remains unsolved to this day and especially baffling because not just one work was stolen but an entire commercial exhibition comprised of 27 small paintings and works on paper! The whole lot was stolen from the Macquarie Galleries in King Street, Sydney. They have never been recovered.

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At some point during the night of Sunday August 10, 2014, a well-known work by Guercino was stolen from the Church of San Vincenzo in Modena, Italy. Painted in 1639, Madonna and Saint John the Evangelist with St. Gregory the Wonderworker is considered to be one of the artist’s great masterpieces. It’s value is estimated as high as $8,000,000. The painting was not insured, and although the building was equipped with security alarms, the system was rendered non-functional because the Church lacked the funds to maintain it. The theft of this Guercino masterwork is one of the most tragic art thefts to occur in Italy in the last decade.
     There was no sign of forced entry. This suggests that the thieves had hidden inside the building before the Church closed after the conclusion of Sunday Mass. The large Guercino painting measures about six by ten feet and was taken with it’s heavy frame, a cumbersome task, indicating that at least two or three people were involved in the theft. They would’ve had a large vehicle parked nearby, most likely a van or box truck, in order to fit the framed canvas inside. Some Italian authorities have speculated that the thieves may plan on cutting up the painting to sell the pieces separately. However, that dire scenario seems unlikely, because the thieves made a pointed effort to keep the painting whole and in it’s frame when they removed it. -T.S.

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The Painting:
La Femme à l’Éventail or Woman with a Fan was painted in 1919, and is a prime example of Modigliani’s technique. The typically elongated portrait depicts Lunia Czechowska, a Polish woman whose husband was a friend of Modigliani’s dealer Leopold Zborowski. Lunia posed for the artist ten times during a three year period, with this portrait being completed one year before Modigliani’s death.
The Theft:
On May 20, 2010, a lone thief pulled off one of the biggest art thefts in history. Five works, valued at upwards of €100m, were stolen from the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. The filched paintings were well-known works by top-tier artists: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Leger and Braque.
Lax security and careless blunders were largely to blame for the success of the heist. It was discovered that the paintings were gone around 7:00 a.m. The three guards on duty that night were dumbfounded, telling investigators that they “saw nothing.” A closer look at the museum’s security system and the events of that shift painted an unsettling picture. Inspection of the security alarms revealed that the motion detectors that covered the area in which the theft took place had been non-functional for nearly two months, since March 30. The alarms points were malfunctioning, causing false alarms, and the management decided to disable them to alleviate their frustration. Spare parts to make repairs had been ordered, but had not arrived yet.
On the night of May 20, all of the exterior CCTV cameras were focused towards the roof of the building, leaving the guards blind to street level activity. At about 4:00 a.m., the thief sheared a padlock and smashed through a first floor window to gain entry to the Musée d’Art Moderne. Once inside, the masked “burly” thief passed by an array of interior CCTV cameras, which nicely recorded his nonchalance as he perpetrated the crime. The thief spent about 15 minutes removing the five canvases from their frames, and he placed them all together in a large single bundle before exiting from the same window. French investigators theorize that the guards were sleeping, or otherwise distracted, in order to have missed the entire crime playing out on their monitors. The Brigade de Répression du Banditisme believes that the thief acted alone.
In 2011, a suspect told police that he had thrown the five paintings in the garbage and that they were destroyed by a trash compactor. However, this claim is unsubstantiated.
The five masterpieces are unsellable and have not been recovered. -T.S.

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Meticulously hand-crafted in gold, ivory and enamel, Benvetuto Cellini’s Saliera (Salt Cellar) is the epitome of opulence, a masterpiece by any standard. It’s elegant design, consisting of a male figure representing the sea facing a nude female figure that personifies earth, is unmistakable and unique. The sea figure rests beside a boat-shaped vessel for salt, while the earth figure reclines next to a temple shaped receptacle for pepper. Completed in 1543 for Francis I of France, the Saliera passed through the Habsburg Collection before finding a place in the vast galleries of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in the 19th Century. It is considered to be the only work of precious metal by Cellini in existence, currently valued at nearly $60,000,000.
The highly recognizable Cellini Saliera became the target of an unwise thief at 4:00 a.m. on May 11, 2003. The museum was partly covered by scaffolding, which further aided the thief in an already easy job of breaking into the building. A security alarm was set off during the heist, and the thief hurriedly exited with the Saliera. However, he didn’t need to be so rushed. The security guard on duty disregarded the alarm as a glitch and reset it, never bothering to investigate the source. It took four hours before anyone realized the irreplaceable Saliera was gone.
Three slow years passed without word.
Stealing the Cellini Saliera was laughably simple. However, the cold reality of disposing of such a hot object surely proved problematic for the thief right away. Quickly realizing that the Saliera was unsellable and worthless to him, it was then hidden. A break in the case came in January of 2006, when the thief was identified using video footage. Robert Mang, a “specialist in security alarms”, turned himself in to police in the wake of the media attention. He led investigators to a wooded area north of Vienna, where the Saliera was found buried in a lead box. Mang was sentenced to four years in prison for the theft.
Benvenuto Cellini’s golden Saliera was returned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it stands not only as a remarkable one-of-a-kind masterpiece, but as testament to lax security and the futility of art theft. -T.S.