Theft of The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria

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The National Gallery of Victoria's Weeping Woman
National Gallery of Victoria Weeping Woman.jpg
ArtistPablo Picasso
Year18 October 1937 (18 October 1937)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions55 cm × 46 cm (22 in × 18 in)
LocationNational Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

The theft of The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria took place on 2 August 1986 in Melbourne, Australia. The stolen work was one of a series of paintings by Pablo Picasso all known as The Weeping Woman and had been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria for A$1.6 million in 1985—at the time the highest price paid by an Australian art gallery for an artwork. A group calling itself "Australian Cultural Terrorists" claimed responsibility, making a number of demands (and insults) in letters to the then Victorian Minister for the Arts, Race Mathews. The demands included increases to funding for the arts; threats were made that the painting would be destroyed. After an anonymous tip-off to police, the painting was found undamaged in a locker at Spencer Street station on 19 August 1986. The theft still remains unsolved.

The painting[edit]

After painting Guernica, Picasso created a series of works depicting one of the figures in the work, a weeping woman. The model for these works was his mistress Dora Maar. The definitive work in the series is in the collection of the Tate Modern.[1]

One of the series was painted on 18 October 1937, and is oil on canvas, 55 centimetres by 46 centimetres.[2] While the painting at the Tate Modern is in bright reds, blues and yellows, the 18 October work has been described as "an unsettling combination of acid greens and vibrant mauves exaggerated by thick black outlines".[3] This is the painting that was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1985 for A$1.6 million.[4][5]

Before the National Gallery of Victoria bought its Weeping Woman, the highest price paid by a major gallery in Australia for a painting was for Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973 for A$1.3 million.[6] Commenting on the purchase of The Weeping Woman, director of the National Gallery of Victoria Patrick McCaughey said its recent acquisition is "the most expensive purchase by any Australian gallery", and "This face is going to haunt Melbourne for the next 100 years." [5] The National Gallery of Victoria's "Weeping Woman" has been reported as valued by Sotheby's as worth $100 million.[7]

The theft[edit]

View looking south towards the public entrance to the National Gallery of Victoria

The thieves obtained access to the gallery on Saturday 2 August 1986, and unscrewed the painting from its wall mounting.[8] The thieves then removed the mounted canvas from its frame and left the gallery undetected. McCaughey stated that a specialised type of screwdriver not available to the public would have been required to take the painting off the wall.[5] It has been suggested that the thieves knew their art history: the method of the theft was an ironic homage to the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.[9] (In 1911, Picasso and his contemporary Guillaume Apollinaire, were both suspects in the Mona Lisa theft; they were cleared of any association with the crime.[10])

The theft of The Weeping Woman was not noticed until Monday 4 August 1986.[8] The thieves had left a card indicating that the painting had been removed for routine maintenance.[11][12] Staff had assumed that "ACT" on the card – the initials of the "Australian Cultural Terrorists" – referred to the Australian Capital Territory, and that the painting had been transferred to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.[8] Initially it was suspected that the crime might have been perpetrated by a gang of international art smugglers, and the possibility of an "inside job" was not considered.[13]

The painting itself was not insured; then-Arts Minister Race Mathews conceded that the price of insurance was prohibitive for major works of art.[14]

Demands and insults[edit]


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 and our campaign continue.
Your very humble servants,

Australian Cultural Terrorists

— "The Ransom Letter", The Age, 5 August 1986[5]

The "Australian Cultural Terrorists" wrote two letters addressed to Race Mathews, Minister for the Arts in the second government of Victorian Premier John Cain. The first letter demanded that funding for the arts be increased by ten percent over a three-year period. The "Australian Cultural Terrorists" also demanded that an art prize be set up, worth $25 000 and to be called "The Picasso Ransom" prize,[15] or for five separate prizes to be awarded to young Australian artists.[8] The letter was addressed to "Rank Mathews". Mathews was also Police Minister; he was described by the "terrorists" as "Minister of Plod".[5] The second letter described Mathews as a "tiresome old bag of swamp gas" and a "pompous fathead".[4][8] It also threatened that if the demands were not met, the painting would be burnt.[16]

Official responses[edit]

The Victorian government refused to accept any of the demands and offered a $50 000 reward for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators of the theft.[15][17] Race Mathews was reported as saying, "I can't imagine that anybody who had genuinely at heart the interests either of art or of art lovers could have perpetrated an action of this sort."[18] Patrick McCaughey was reported to have said, "We live in a philistine nation but a civilised city."[4][9]


In his 2003 memoir The Bright Shapes and the True Names, Patrick McCaughey wrote that a few days before the painting was recovered, a Melbourne art dealer called him to say that a young artist may know something about the theft. When he visited the artist's studio, McCaughey writes, he made a point to say that he was interested in the return of the painting, not a conviction for the crime: "I said deliberately, at least twice, that the people who had taken the work could deposit it in a luggage locker at Spencer Street railway station or at Tullamarine Airport."[11]

Two days later, on 19 August 1986, following an anonymous phone call to police, the painting was found undamaged and carefully wrapped in brown paper tied with string in a locker number 227 at Spencer Street station.[16] The locker was opened with a station staff master key.[19] Police stated that the painting was packed in such a way as to ensure that it would not be damaged, suggesting "quite possibly someone in the art world or on the fringes of the art world."[20] McCaughey himself later formally identified the painting.[16]

A third letter from the "Australian Cultural Terrorists" was included with the work. Its content was not initially released to the public.[16] An extract printed in The Age read:

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.[20]

Closure of crime investigation[edit]

On 11 January 1989 The Age reported that the case had been closed, and no further investigations would be made into the theft until any solid evidence was presented that any persons including National Gallery of Victoria staff were involved in the theft.[21]

Contemporary reactions to the theft[edit]

In August 1986 while the painting was still yet to be recovered, then Australian Treasurer Paul Keating was caricatured in a political cartoon as the "Weeping Woman", his cause of sorrow being the 1986 Federal Budget.[22] According to Patrick McCaughey, around about the same time "a philistine piece" was written by B. A. Santamaria. It urged that if the "Australian Cultural Terrorists" had in fact destroyed Picasso's work, they be awarded the Order of Australia.[11] Contemporary newspaper reports described the incident in terms such as "the so-called Australian Cultural Terrorist who nicked Picasso's Weeping Woman from McCaughey Mansions",[23] a reference to the art gallery director and also to a popular radio show by comedians Roy Rene.[citation needed]

Chilean Australian artist Juan Davila painted a work titled Picasso Theft and offered to donate it to the National Gallery of Victoria in place of the stolen painting. Davila wrote that "mine is a real one".[24]


The crime was described in 2009 as "still Australia's greatest unsolved art heist".[8] In 2010, in the context of a theft of an entire private collection worth $2 million and the theft of a Frans van Mieris self-portrait valued at $1.4 million from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004, it was referred to as "most famous art heist in Australia".[25]

On the 20th anniversary of the theft, Australian online magazine Crikey described the thieves as "more than likely just a bunch of naughty boys" and that it was regarded by some in the arts community as a work of "performance art", and a political act in response to the "cultural cringe".[26]

In 2011, John Brack's Collins St., 5 pm was voted the most popular work in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The Weeping Woman was the fourth most popular.[27] The work itself was described in 2012 as "the National Gallery of Victoria's much-loved Weeping Woman".[28]


The 1990 film A Kink in the Picasso was a 'comic and entirely fabricated drama'[29] based on the painting's theft. 'Comedy is always difficult,' wrote reviewer John Mangan, 'even when the most unlikely aspect of the plot - the remarkable ease with which a group of young artists can sneak paintings worth millions of dollars out of art galleries - is based in fact.'[30]

The Australian Film Commission funded a documentary by Melbourne independent filmmakers Colin Cairnes and Catherine Dyson about the theft entitled The Picasso Ransom.[15] The film was shown at the 23rd St Kilda Film Festival in 2006.[31] A search was made for Spencer Street station's locker 227, where the painting was found, which supposedly was taken with others to a regional rail facility, but it had been replaced and could not be located. Since the time of the theft, Spencer Street station has been totally rebuilt and now renamed Southern Cross station. None of the buildings which housed services and facilities for travellers at that date now exist, although the platforms and a now generally inaccessible underground walkway between platforms still exist.


Stealing Picasso, Australian writer Anson Cameron's fifth novel, published in 2009, was based on the incident. It includes entirely fictional narrative as well as fictionalised references to actual people and events.[8]

Cairo, a 2013 novel by Australian writer Chris Womersley about life in inner-city Melbourne[32] uses the theft as a theme to describe its narrator's introduction into the bohemian lives of its other characters.[33]

The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex,[34] a 2016 young adult novel by Gabrielle Williams, is a fictional story centered around the theft. While researching for the novel, Williams says that she "interviewed a number of people, some of who may or may not have been the actual Australian Cultural Terrorists".

Security measures[edit]

In 2012, the work was shown as part of "Theatre of the World", a joint exhibition of the Museum of Old and New Art and Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, alongside works by Giacometti, Kandinsky, Basquiat, Ernst and Hirst. Museum of Old and New Art staff were not informed of the whereabouts or identity of the work, with a then reported value of up to $50 million, until it was in place.[35]


The end of a disappointing 2012 AFL season for Australian football team Essendon Football Club was illustrated by a description of there being two well-known weeping figures within walking distance of each other in Melbourne: Essendon coach James Hird at the Melbourne Cricket Ground as well as "the famous one at the National Gallery of Victoria".[36]


  1. ^ "Pablo Picasso—Weeping Woman 1937". Tate Etc. November 2006. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  2. ^ "Pablo Picasso—Weeping Woman 1937—Catalogue entry". Tate Etc. November 2006. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  3. ^ "Weeping Woman Series". Picasso: Love & War 1935–1945. National Gallery of Victoria. October 2006. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  4. ^ a b c "Stolen Picasso". Rewind. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 19 September 2004. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e Michael Shmith (5 August 1986). "Anguish in green replaced by faces of red". The Age. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  6. ^ "Jackson Pollock Before Blue Poles". National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  7. ^ Dixon, Thomas (19 July 2016). "Picasso's Weeping Woman: The agony and the ecstasy of the art theft". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 10 September 2018.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Keenan, Catherine (12 September 2009). "The art of theft". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  9. ^ a b Sophie Cunningham (1 February 2012). Melbourne. University of New South Wales Press. ISBN 9781742240442. OCLC 779828577. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  10. ^ Richard Lacayo (7 April 2009). "Art's Great Whodunit: The Mona Lisa Theft of 1911". TIME. Time Inc. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
  11. ^ a b c Patrick McCaughey (16 August 2003). "The woman in locker 227". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  12. ^ "Australian 'culture terrorists' steal Picasso painting". Pittsburgh Press. Block Communications. 5 August 1986. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  13. ^ "Picasso ransom: police now suspect smugglers". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. 6 August 1986. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  14. ^ "Stolen work by Picasso not insured". Montreal Gazette. 6 August 1986. Retrieved 7 May 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Mark, Russell (21 November 2004). "Picasso art heist". The Age. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  16. ^ a b c d "Stolen Picasso is recovered in Australian Railway Station". The New York Times. 20 August 1986. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  17. ^ Porter, David (21 August 1986). "It's all smiles now for Picasso's Weeper". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  18. ^ "'Cultural Terrorists' Hold a Picasso for Ransom". Los Angeles Times. 5 August 1986. Retrieved 21 June 2013.
  19. ^ Moore, Matthew (20 August 1986). "Stolen Picasso found in railway locker". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  20. ^ a b "Police say painting was in the hands of experts". The Age. Fairfax Media. 21 August 1986. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  21. ^ "No new inquiry into Picasso theft, police say". The Age. Fairfax Media. 11 January 1989. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  22. ^ "Hawke Government: 1986". Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Library. University of South Australia. August 1986. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  23. ^ Mackay, Ian (5 September 1986). "Race, no cultural pauper he". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  24. ^ Dixon, Robyn (7 August 1986). "As well as a three day old replica". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  25. ^ James Madden and Matthew Westwood (14 August 2010). "Stolen pictures will be 'unsaleable'". The Australian. News Limited. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  26. ^ Feneley, Stephen (3 May 2006). "Who stole Picasso's Weeping Woman?". Crikey. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  27. ^ "Hobart's MONA out to rival mainland blockbusters". The Australian. News Corporation. 27 April 2012. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  28. ^ Melbourne Age 24 August 1990 p. 47
  29. ^ Melbourne Age Green Guide 9 April 1992, p. 2
  30. ^ Trigg, Fiona (July 2006). "Senses of Cinema—The 23rd St Kilda Film Festival". Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  31. ^ "Chris Womersley's Cairo". Books and Arts Daily. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 9 September 2013. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  32. ^ Tang, Estelle (31 August 2013). "Bohemia and the art of theft in Fitzroy". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  33. ^ [1]
  34. ^ Fitzgibbon, Rebecca (16 June 2012). "MONA's Picasso masterpiece". The Mercury. Retrieved 22 June 2013.
  35. ^ Pavlidis, Jim (26 August 2012). "It's been a big week in art... with Jim Pavlidis". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 25 June 2013.

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