When gallery director Patrick McCaughey arrived at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on August 4, 1986, his staff was in crisis mode. The head of security approached him: “I think the Picasso is gone,” he said, looking flustered.

The NGV—a major gallery in Australia—had purchased Picasso’s Weeping Woman less than a year earlier. At the time, it was the most expensive painting an Australian gallery had ever acquired. Its price clocked in at AU$1.6 million (over AU$4.3 million in today's dollars)—an eye-watering amount for the public to digest at the time. After a plunge in the Australian dollar, it was valued at AU$2 million shortly after.

One of a series of works Picasso painted in the 1930s, Weeping Woman is considered a companion to his masterpiece, Guernica, and depicts his lover Dora Maar in lurid green and purples, holding a tissue up to her anguished, geometric face. At the time of the purchase, McCaughey boasted, “This face is going to haunt Melbourne for the next 100 years.” But now, it had vanished from its wall.

The director and staff were baffled. In the painting’s place was a note that said it had been taken to “The ACT.” They assumed it had been relocated to a sister gallery in the ACT—the Australian Capital Territoryand starting making calls to confirm. When the interstate gallery said they didn’t have Weeping Woman, things started to get heated.

The Australian Cultural Terrorists

It wasn't long until exactly what the ACT was became clear. Later that morning, The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, received a letter signed by “The Australian Cultural Terrorists,” which said the group had swiped the painting and now had it in their possession. Addressing arts minister Race Mathews, they wrote that they were protesting “the clumsy, unimaginative stupidity of the administration” in this “hick state.” They made a list of demands, including more funding for the arts and a prize for young Australian artists. If Mathews didn’t cave to the group’s requests within a week, they said, the Picasso would be burned.

Police swept the NGV building. They soon found the painting’s frame, but the canvas eluded them. At one point they even drained the famous moat around the building, but still came up empty-handed.

To compound the gallery’s embarrassment about its lax security, the painting was not insured. If it were destroyed, there would be no financial recompense.

An Inside Job?

As the police struggled to get a lead, newspapers around the world splashed the story across their pages. The city was thick with theories. Many suspected an inside job: Not only was there no sign of forced entry to the gallery, but the painting had specialized screws attaching it to the wall, which would require certain tools—and expertise—to detach. Some said it was an act of high-stakes performance art; perhaps an homage to another infamous art heist: the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, in which Picasso himself was briefly embroiled.

Days flew by, and still, there were no leads. A second ransom note hectored Minister Mathews, calling him a “tiresome old bag of swamp gas,” “pompous fathead,” and a “political he-man.” The Cultural Terrorists wrote: “If our demands are not met, you will begin the long process of carrying about you the smell of kerosene and burning canvas.” In a third letter, Mathews received a burnt match.

The gallery’s chief conservator at the time, Thomas Dixon, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2019 that, as the deadline passed, “staff morale was collapsing. More theories made the rounds. Then nothing.”

But then, a tip. McCaughey was contacted by a local art dealer, who said a young artist she knew seemed to know something. McCaughey visited the artist’s studio, where he found newspaper clippings of the theft pinned to the wall. The gallery director mentioned that the painting could be returned anonymously to a luggage locker at a train station or the city’s airport. As Dixon wrote, “The artist remained stoney faced throughout.”

Locker 227: The Discovery

More than two weeks had passed since the theft when the press received an anonymous phone call. Go to Spencer Street railway station, the caller said, and look in locker 227.

The police, press, and gallery staff rushed to the location. When police prized open the locker, they found a neat, brown-paper parcel, which they quickly brought back to the station to unwrap. “And there it was,” Dixon wrote. “No burns, no slashes, none of the things we feared.” The painting had clearly been well cared for, by people who knew how to handle artwork.

To this day, the theft has not been solved. The case remains lodged in popular imagination in Australia, inspiring movies and novels.

After the painting was returned, the National Gallery of Victoria tightened its security considerably. When a subsequent gallery director started in the role, one of the first things he asked Dixon was who was behind the theft. “Everyone knows,” Dixon replied, “but nobody can agree.”