Melbourne's National Gallery Victoria (NGV) has one of the best public art collections in the southern hemisphere. Alongside local artists, many international heavy hitters from the modern era are featured; Hockney, Manet, Rodin, Picasso. Amazingly, the last of these nearly slipped through the gallery's fingers.
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 Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, this dramatic piece represented one of Picasso's few forays into political commentary, and created a storm of controversy when it was first unveiled.
The painting itself presents a variety of riffs on the theme of suffering; bodies are dismembered, a cavalry horse screams, debris and refuse are strewn chaotically. Three and a half metres tall, more than seven metres wide, and deliberately provocative, Guernica provides a disturbing vision of some of the worst excesses of human behaviour.
While Picasso worked on this piece he was shadowed by Dora Marr, a young photographer who was documenting his technique and method. The two became lovers and Marr later served as a model for a series of paintings often viewed as companion pieces to Guernica, the Weeping Woman series.
Completed later in 1937, The Weeping Woman pictures again offer a depiction of suffering, although this time set in the everyday. Picasso hoped that the more intimate setting would provide a more universal image, allowing an easier connection for the audience than the more extreme imagery of Guernica.
The different canvasses in the series found their way into different collections around the world.
In 1985 one of these, formerly owned by Picasso's daughter, was acquired by the National Gallery of 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.'
On, or around, August 4, 1986, the painting was stolen.
On that day, McCaughey arrived at the gallery around lunchtime for a committee meeting. He was not long in the building 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.
We began a search, desperately hoping it was a prank, and that the painting was still in the building.
Half an hour later we found the frame, tossed up on a showcase 30 metres where the painting had hung.
- Patrick McCaughey
That same morning, 'The Age' newspaper received a letter from unknown persons, claiming responsibility for the theft. Calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists (ACT), the thieves also 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 thieves threatened to destroy the painting if their demands were not met.
McCaughey fronted a press conference in the afternoon to break the news to the wider public and appeal for the paintings safe 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.
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. Then, in the morning, they could have simply walked out; the NGV's Weeping Woman measured only 55 x 47 centimetres, so could easily have been concealed in a bag or under a coat.
The NGV's moat was drained, the building searched and the staff questioned, 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.
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), while a private gallery in Adelaide curated a show of copies of Weeping Woman, all created by local artists.
Meanwhile, the official investigation went nowhere.
The police, quickly stumped for leads, and without tangible progress, appealed to the public for information.
Then McCaughey had his first piece of luck.
He 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 theft. McCaughey duly reported this to the police, and they suggested he contact Howson casually, and 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.
I said deliberately, at least twice, that the people who had taken the work could deposit it in a locker at Spencer Street Station, or Tullamarine airport.'
- Patrick McCoughay
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 harassed 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?
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.
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.
But whatever the truth of this part of the story, no one has ever been charged with the theft.
An official enquiry into the incident turned up no new evidence, and so could draw few conclusions. It's 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 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.