June 21, 2024

The Weeping Woman Disappears

In 1986, Pablo Picasso's 'Weeping Woman' was stolen from the National Gallery Victoria. The thieves have never been identified.

'Guernica', a famous artwork by Pablo Picasso
'Guernica'; one of the 20th century's most famous artworks.

In 1937, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso completed one of the great artworks of the 20th century: 'Guernica', his epic take on the horrors of war.

Inspired by the bombing of the town of the same name in the Spanish Civil War, this dramatic piece represented a rare foray by the artist into political commentary. Some of the worst aspects of human behaviour are graphically depicted; dismembered corpses, animal cruelty, suffering, anguish and carnage.

Several metres long, and deliberately provocative, the painting stirred up a firestorm of controversy when first unveiled.

Photographer Dora Marr; model for Picasso
Photographer Dora Maar

While Picasso worked on Guernica he was shadowed by Dora Maar, a young photographer documenting his methods. The two became lovers and Maar later served as a model for a series of paintings often viewed as companion pieces: the 'Weeping Woman' series.

Completed later in 1937, The Weeping Woman pictures again offer a depiction of suffering, although this time grounded in the everyday. Picasso hoped that their smaller scale and more intimate nature would allow an easier connection for his audience.

The artist was clearly inspired, producing sixty of the paintings, each slightly different. He sold them off individually, and the works then found their way into different collections around the world.

'The Weeping Woman', by Picasso. NGV collection, Melbourne.
'The Weeping Woman'; NGV, Melbourne.

In 1985, one of these, formerly owned by Picasso's daughter, was acquired by the National Gallery Victoria (NGV).

With a price tag of $1.6 million, this Weeping Woman was, at that time, the most expensive artwork in a public collection in Australia. NGV Director Patrick McCaughey was well pleased with his pricey coup, declaring that the portrait would 'haunt Melbourne for the next hundred years.'

But he was in for a shock: just a few months after the acquisition, the painting was stolen.

On August 4, 1986, McCaughey arrived at the gallery around lunchtime for a meeting.  He was not in the building long before one of the security guards raced up to him, clearly agitated:

'I think the Picasso is gone!' the guard said.

'We shot down to the European galleries, and the Picasso was indeed gone. In its place was a registrars card, indicating that the painting had been moved to the ACT. Half an hour later we found the frame, tossed up on a showcase 30 metres from where the painting had hung.'

 

- Patrick McCaughey

As a frantic McCaughey and his staff scoured the building, they were suddenly contacted by 'The Age' newspaper. That  morning, the paper had received a letter from a  group claiming to have stolen the NGV's Picasso: did McCaughey have any comment?

Realising that the story was about to break, McCaughey then called a press conference. In the afternoon he addressed journalists, confirming the painting had been taken and asking for its return.

'If the picture is ruined or damaged in any way, this gallery will never be able to afford another Picasso,' he solemnly declared.

The police investigation of the theft then began in earnest.

Former NGV director Patrick McCaughey
Patrick McCaughey

The letter at The Age was from a group calling themselves, the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT). In it, they issued an eccentric set of demands, including an increase in Government funding for the arts, and the establishment of an annual prize for young artists.

The group threatened to destroy the painting if these were not met.

Investigators theorised that the thieves may have hidden in the gallery overnight, removing the painting from its frame and placing the registrars card while the building was empty. In the morning they could then have simply walked out; the painting measured only 55 x 47 centimetres, so could have been concealed in a bag or under a coat.

The NGV's moat was drained and the building searched, but clues were scarce.

The only real leads were the ransom letters, two more of which arrived in the week following the theft. These new letters mocked the police and McCaughey, but saved its most vitriolic comments for State Arts Minister Race Matthews, who was referred to as a 'mouldy bag of gas.'

The arts community's response was mixed. Many artists publicly decried the theft, while a smaller number recognised merit in the ACT's demands for increased arts funding.

Tribute artwork 'Picasso Theft', by Juan Davila
'Picasso Theft', by Juan Davila

Chilean painter Juan Davila painted a picture inspired by the crime, 'Picasso Theft', which he offered as a replacement to the NGV (this artwork was itself stolen from a small gallery in Sydney). And a private gallery in Adelaide curated a show of copies of the Weeping Woman, all created by local artists.

Meanwhile, the official investigation went nowhere. Without tangible progress,  the police appealed to the public for information.

This lead to a break in the case.

Shortly afterwards, McCaughey received a phone call from Anna Schwarz, a young Melbourne art dealer, who told him that she had been at a dinner party where the theft had been discussed.

A local artist, Mark Howson, had been present and had both discussed the incident at length, and had seemed to have surprisingly detailed knowledge of the crime. McCaughey duly reported this to the police, and they suggested he contact Howson casually, to try and determine what, if anything, he knew.

McCaughey decided to approach Howson in person, and so went to his studio in the city:

'I explained that we were moving around the art world, asking everyone if they knew anything about the Picasso.

Howson was perfectly at ease throughout the interview, notably cool and composed. But all around the walls of the studio, were the press cuttings from the past two weeks, dealing with the theft.' 

 

- Patrick McCaughey

During the discussion, McCaughey mentioned several times that if the thieves did want to return the painting , the best way would be to leave it in a public locker at Spencer Street train station.

'The Age' reports the recovery, August 20, 1986.

Two days later, a telephone call was received by 'The Age' from someone who identified themselves as a member of the ACT. They advised that the Weeping Woman could be found in locker 227 at Southern Cross station.

Police, television crews, and one very anxious art gallery director descended on the station. A custodian jimmied the locker open with a crowbar, and the painting was found inside, wrapped in brown paper.

A relieved McCaughey told the press, 'It will go behind bullet proof glass this time, and be bolted to the wall!'

So who stole the painting?

'A Road Between Two Hills', By Mark Howson
'A Road Between Two Hills', By Mark Howson.

McCaughey's story has caused many to point the finger at Mark Howson, but the gallery director himself did not think this likely. Howson had no criminal record, and was not known to be associated with any radical groups; he has always denied involvement in any capacity.

At most, McCaughey thought Howson may have known the thieves and so passed on a message that the authorities were closing in. Or, McCaughey's meeting with the artist, and the paintings subsequent return, may have been a simple coincidence.

Howson would subsequently find some acclaim as an artist, and his paintings are held in several public collections, including the NGV. He was never charged with any crimes, or even questioned by police.

An official enquiry into the incident turned up no new evidence. Its report was released to little fanfare at the end of August, after which the police abandoned their investigation altogether.

With the artwork returned safely, all enthusiasm for any further pursuit of the thieves disappeared,

'I was thoroughly sick of the whole thing,' said McCaughey,

'The Weeping Woman' by Picasso, on display at the NGV
Back on display

The theft did turn the spotlight onto the NGV's rather lax security, and some measures were taken to tighten these up.

Among the changes, the chairs used by the gallery guards were removed on the orders of McCaughey, who decreed that these staff members were now expected to walk around the galleries while on duty, and so keep a more watchful eye on the gallery's visitors.

Deprived of their chairs, the guards went on strike.

 More MUSEUM OF LOST

One thought on “The Weeping Woman Disappears

  1. Much of this article is completely inaccurate and the parts including Anna Scwhartz and Mark Howson been at a dinner party together are a complete fabrication.

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