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.