The Picasso Ransom

In 1986 the Australian Cultural Terrorists stole a Picasso from a Melbourne art gallery; they threatened to destroy the painting if the government did not create an art prize called the Picasso Ransom. The culprits were never found.

National Gallery of Victoria
Wpcpey, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some time on a quiet Saturday at the start of August, 1986, people unknown removed a painting by Pablo Picasso from the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. In its place, they left a registrar’s card – one of those cards indicating that an exhibit had been moved for cleaning or loaned to another institution. This card said that it had been moved to “A. C. T.” ACT is the acronym for the Australian Capital Territory (like the United States’ D. C.), but the Picasso had not gone to Canberra. It had been stolen.

No-one noticed right away. The presence of a registrar’s card was apparently enough to assure everyone that its absence was intentional. But a couple of days later, a group calling themselves Australian Cultural Terrorists (“A. C. T.”) sent a letter to a Melbourne newspaper. It was a ransom note. But it was not a normal ransom: the thieves asked for money, but not for themselves.

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, unimaginitive stupidity of the administration and distribution of that funding.

Two conditions must be publicly agreed upon if the painting is to be returned.

1. The Minister must announce a commitment to increasing the funding of the arts by 10% in real terms over the next three years, and must agree to appoint an independent committee to enquire into the mechanics of the funding of the arts with a view to releasing money from its administration and making it available to artists.

2. The Minister must announce a new annual prize for painting open to artists under thirty years of age. Five prizes of $5000 are to be awarded. A fund is to be established to ensure that the real value of the prizes is maintained each year. The prize is to be called The Picasso Ransom.

Because the Minister of the Arts is also Minister of Plod, we are allowing him a sporting seven days in which to try to have us arrested while he deliberates. There will be no negotiation. At the end of seven days if our demands have not been met the painting will be destroyed and our campaign continue.

Your very humble servants,
Australian Cultural Terrorists

The Ransom Letter

Yup, “terrorism” for arts funding! The gallery had purchased the painting, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, for AU$1.6 million just the year before. It was the most expensive purchase by an Australian art gallery up to that time; and today the painting is worth more than a hundred million dollars.

Clues at the site of the theft suggested an inside job – or at least someone with knowledge of how galleries operate. The gallery’s director Patrick McCaughey was not interested in catching the criminals, just in getting back the Picasso. So when he heard through an arts dealer that a young artist may know something about the theft, he visited the artist’s studio.

The studio was covered in press clippings about the theft. McCaughey, casually, suggested that if anyone happened to have the painting, they should probably just drop it in a luggage locker at the local train station or airport.

The next day, the newspaper got a phone call. The Australian Cultural Terrorists said that Weeping Woman was in a luggage locker… at the local train station. And it was.

The Picasso was recovered unscathed, and the Picasso Ransom was never established. McCaughey, in his autobiography, did not think that the young artist was the culprit – and, indeed, the thieves have never been publicly identified.

[Thanks to Omar Sakr.]

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