As crime goes, Aussies are proud to have very little of it. But an art heist from almost 35 years ago is again making headlines today. Why? Because authorities still don’t know who perpetrated the crime.

What’s the story?

Picasso, Melbourne, and Australia’s Most Memorable Art Heist

A September, 2019 issue of ABC News Australia (good spot for an outbound link {link in sources cited section}) carried an in-depth story of Melbourne’s famous art heist. The year was 1986. Pablo Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” was on display at the National Gallery of Victoria. The painting had been purchased by the gallery about a year prior, for a whopping $1.6 million.

One morning, the painting was gone! In its place, a pestering note saying the art has been removed for “routine maintenance.”

A few days later, still no painting, and then the ransom note arrived. But this was no ordinary ransom note. And these were no ordinary thieves. The thieves were called the Australian Cultural Terrorists. They did not want money, jewels, safe passage, or any other favors. They wanted the government to increase its support of the arts.

Here is their ransom note, quoted from the ABC News Australia article:

“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, unimaginative 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 of 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 $5,000 are to be awarded. A fund is to be established to ensure that the real value of the prizes in 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.”

“Your very humble servants,
Australian Cultural Terrorists”

The Australian government refused to cooperate with the thieves, even though the thieves sent follow-up messages threatening to destroy the painting if their demands were not met. Still, the Australian government refused to give in to “budgeting by blackmail.”

The seven-day deadline came and went, and art enthusiasts across Melbourne assumed the worst, that Picasso’s Weeping Woman was lost for good.

But almost three weeks after the heist, the press received an anonymous phone call. The call instructed the press to go to Spencer Street railway station, where they would find the painting hidden in locker 227. Sure enough, the painting was there!

The painting was recovered, but the demands of the Australian Cultural Terrorists were never met.

After a three-year-long investigation, the Melbourne police still had not found the thieves, and the case was permanently closed in 1989.

The Importance of Art

We can all agree that crimes should not be committed, even if the intentions behind them are thought by the criminals to be good ones.

We can, however, agree that the arts should be supported and promoted.

The Australian Cultural Terrorists made a mistake the moment they decided to use crime to achieve their goals of supporting the arts. They should have sought more legitimate means, and perhaps they would have achieved their goals in doing so.

At Life With Paint, we teach the joy of creating artwork to thousands of people every year. With 17 venues across Australia, over 2,000 classes taught, and over 54,000 happy students, we are taking the love of painting to every corner of the continent. Check out our events page (Good spot for an inbound link) to find a class near you.

We promise we won’t steal anything, and if we do, the only thing that will be stolen away is any doubts or misgivings you might have that you too can create incredible works of art!