You can easily picture the scene, the cliche start of a film noir detective story. A door with a frosted glass panel, like the ones in the corridors of the Nicholas Building, and a sign ‘Art Investigator’. The door slowly swings open, like the curtain at the theatre, and the muse is standing there. She is now in trouble. No surprise, people don’t come in that door when life is fine and dandy. I offer her a seat, and she sits down and starts to cry. Who is this weeping woman?
Everybody expects me to solve the Picasso theft at the NGV as if I stood a chance of finding the culprits in one of the greatest unsolved art thefts. What, I am some kind of art investigator? No, I’m a blogger, an independent researcher and a writer, and I’m trying to promote my book with this post. And I did find about Picasso taken from the Queensland Art Gallery, when forgeries of Jackson Pollock appeared in the Woman’s Weekly and other evil art crimes.
I wanted to read a paperback true-crime collection of stories about art. So I had to write one – The Picasso Ransom—true crimes from Australia – all about art, with none of the blood, gore or copaganda.
“A most excellent book that I’ve devoured in the last twenty-four hours.” Andrew Rule
So now I’m a true crime writer, given that I have been on Life & Crimes with Andrew Rule (“High crimes with paint brushes” podcast 13/5/2023). Andrew Rule liked my book because there were “new and fresh” stories about old criminals, like Murray Farquar and Steven Sellers. And because, as he put it, “a sly turn of phrase and a sly wit.”
I’ve been busy with publicity and marketing my book The Picasso Ransom for the last couple of weeks. And this blog post is another aspect of that.
On Saturday, I had a book launch at my local pub, The Woodlands on Sydney Road. I made a bit of a speech, read a bit from the book, did a bit of show and tell with an antique art magazine the NSW vice squad confiscated, and had an extensive Q&A session about writing the book and art crimes led by Neil Kerlogue. Thanks, Neil, for that and your introduction. And thanks to Linda Elly for the photos of the launch. So many people to thank, including the Woodlands Hotel, for providing the venue in their decorative upstairs bar. They said they’d keep the bar open for the first hour, but they kept serving drinks until 6 pm when just my table was left. And I’m not the only author who would recommend them for a book launch.
My book is The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia. I must try to emphasise that most of it is more stories about art and crime, not just the famous theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV.
One of the other stories is the Peter Gant and Aman Siddique trial for forgery. I hear rumours about a two-part documentary being made for the ABC. The documentary will have illustrations by Bill Luke sitting beside me in the reporters’ box during the trial.
On the subject of documentaries on stories I cover in my book. Whatever happened to the one Jacob Obermann was making about Paul Yore?
Will my next book be The Picasso Ransom 2, more stories about art and crime in Australia? There are already some stories developing. Including the protests in museums, the attempted decapitated of a banana skull statue, stolen garden sculptures and more of the continuing statue wars. Ronald Ferguson told me about a guy shot in the back stealing some paintings in the 1970s – I must look into that. Will I include a story about an art dealer stealing work from artists? The police don’t often get involved in what is, to some extent, a business dispute, but if the right story comes along. Contact me if you can add details or know of a crime involving art in Australia that I have missed.
My book is available from the usual online sellers (Amazon), but please ask your local bookstore to get it and ask your local library to buy a copy. (Unlike the sales, the library reading copyright royalties for my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne, continues to grow).
The Picasso Ransom – and other stories about art and crime in Australia, (available in paperback and e-book) my second book is a collection of forty-five true-crime stories about the visual arts in Australia: art theft, art forgery, art censorship, art vandalism, and protest art.
It is available at Brunswick Books, Avenue Bookstore, Readings Doncaster, Readings Carlton, Dymocks Nowra, Amazon and Booktopia. There was a book Launch: 3pm, 11th of March, The Woodlands Hotel, 84-88 Sydney Rd, Coburg. Q&A with author, book signings and book sales (see my blog post about it).
The title comes from the famous artnapping of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. One of the artnapper’s demands was an art prize called “the Picasso Ransom”.
While that crime is famous, others stories of crimes, from the colonial to the contemporary, are not well known but equally intriguing. Amongst them is an entire exhibition of forged Pollocks, paintings stabbed, art prosecuted as pornography, decapitated statues, and more stolen art.
I have long been interested in art crimes and have been building up a file of clippings and photocopies since I first heard Picasso’s Weeping woman was stolen from the NGV in 1986. That year I wrote a long essay on the aesthetic issues of art forgery as part of my undergraduate studies, but don’t worry, I won’t be quoting from it in the book. It is not an academic book, it is a true-crime book, and I now think I was wrong about almost everything I wrote in that essay.
However, my interest kept growing, as did my file on art crimes: newspaper clippings and photocopies about art forgers, iconoclastic vandals and graffiti writers. I read more and attended talks and seminars on forgery and iconoclasm.My interest in Melbourne’s public sculpture, the subject of my first book, introduced me to the theft of bronze sculptures for scrap metal.
Writing a blog is a good way of making contacts and gaining experience in an area. I found myself reporting on the accusations, first against Bill Henson and then, in more detail, against Paul Yore. As well as hanging around with Professor Alison Young, “Banksy’s favourite criminologist”, and graffiti writers and street artists.
When I started writing the book about five or six years ago, I had yet to learn how long it would take or how much work would be involved. I was sitting day after day in the Supreme Court. I conducted interviews and exchanged messages with various people, including convicted forgers, graffiti writers, defence lawyers and courtroom artists (the last two are great for name-dropping infamous criminals).
At first, I thought there might be enough crimes involving art in Melbourne alone to fill a book. From the attempted destruction of Serrano’s Piss Christ, the Liberto forgeries, art stolen from Albert Tucker’s home to the arrest of the American graffiti writer Ether, there was a wide variety of crimes. However, I soon learnt of crimes in other parts of Australia that were too fascinating to leave out. There are some intriguing art thefts in South Australia, the earliest attempt of prosecution for forgery in Sydney, an entire exhibition of fake Jackson Pollock in Perth and more. Adding up to over a century of stealing, forging, vandalising and censoring art around Australia.
So, I hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing and researching it. And as a thank you to my regular readers the first three people who comment will get a copy sent to them, anywhere in the world.
The Picasso Ransom and other stories about art and crime in Australia
Mark S. Holsworth
ISBN 978-0-646-87307-7 / ISBN 978-0-646-87308-4 (ebook)
Given the upcoming exhibition at ACCA, “Paul Yore: Word Made Flesh,” I’ve brought together all my posts on Paul Yore. Most of them are about the police raid on the Like Mike exhibition in the middle of 2013 and the subsequent 2014 trial. There are also two about his 2016 exhibition at Neon Parc.
My post Gallery Crawl November 2011 records my first encounter with Paul Yore’s art with his exhibition “Monument to the Republic” at Gertrude Contemporary in a single sentence: “Not that there was any deeply political work in any of the galleries or on the street, except for Paul Yore’s ‘Monument to the Republic’ at Gertrude Contemporary, a piss-taking piece of slacker art that represents the Australian Republic perfectly.”
Painted in February 1961 by an inmate of Pentridge Prison who signed his name J. G. Cust. Earlier this year, I was sent these photographs by a man whose father had been a warden at Pentridge in the 1960s. We know nothing else but hope to find out more. Please comment if you have any information.
I live close to the stone walls of the former Pentridge prison. I was living there when it was still operational. So my interest in this area is partly due to proximity (the rehabilitation of this former 19th-century prison is another story). I’m interested in art outside of the mainstream, from alternate exhibition spaces to graffiti.
The politics of prison art has three parts. Firstly, who is incarcerated? In Australia, Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated. What is the purpose of incarceration, and what is the purpose of art? Is it therapy, education, recreation, job training, or culture? These definitions are political and, in a prison, become structural and institutional.
Finally, there is the issue of who should profit from the art or literature created by prisoners. This final question only worries shallow vengeful politicians (of which there are many in Australia) who cannot separate the crime from the incarcerated person.
In this state, the Torch provides art training and the opportunity for sales to Indigenous people who are incarcerated and post-incarceration. I have been writing about their annual Confined exhibitions and other exhibitions organised by the Torch.
Here are all my posts on the art of the incarcerated (I must try to keep this up dated).
The sad trophy of a great white hunter sits on a porch of the Edwardian bungalow propped up on an old armchair — a sad artifact from another continent and another era. The Cape Buffalo, syncerus caffer caffer for all the zoologists, is the least endangered of the big five game hunting animals. It reminded me that both of us spent time in Africa before we ended up in the vast suburbia of Melbourne.
I avoided writing an end of year blog post for a couple of years, but 2021 needs one because it was a very unusual year. I saw few exhibitions; it seemed like I was always seeing one the night before the city would go into another lockdown, with some of these exhibitions being about art created in the previous lockdown. So I’m not even going to try to name a favourite. Melbourne endured the longest lockdown in the world, which has left deep scars psychic on the city.
For me, it was an enforced period of hyperlocal psychogeography, not the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair, based on literature and history, nor the long-distance walking and speculative psychogeography of Will Self, nor the esoteric psychogeography of ley lines and occult architecture. There could be no grand projects circling the city, only a limited circumference of kilometres from your home. It was the basic dérive that Debord wrote about, drifting through suburban streets — wandering to escape the confines of your home. To lose yourself on the walk, the complete opposite of those English celebrity goes somewhere shows. Who was that masked man?
“All space is occupied by the enemy. We are living under a permanent curfew. Not just the cops — the geometry.” Raoul Vaneigem words are pertinent to Melbourne’s experience; the Belgium writer would have been familiar with the curfews based on zero medical evidence, the cops and the occupied space, the shuttered spaces, closed shops and quiet streets. Last year I wrote a post about walking around in lockdown, and this year I wrote one about COVID related street art or graffiti but I didn’t really want to think about it during the lockdown.
It was hard to form memories without events to distinguish them when even the deaths of friends went unobserved — walking, eating and sleeping, day after day like the seemingly endless streets of Melbourne suburbia. Past police investigation, a forensics team digging up and examining the tarmac under a burnt-out car. Past suburban emergencies, a ruptured gas main. Past garden and architectural nightmares; houses with twenty-eight gables, kitsch concrete garden sculpture grottoes, or last-capitalist hordes of wrecked cars.
Should I organise a Melbourne Psychogeographical Association? (Please get in touch with me if anyone is interested in such an association or regular walks). I don’t know if anyone will be willing to engage in psychogeography for a long time. Or have the anti-vaxers, and Qanon conspiracy theorists discovered a kind of mass psychogeography in their repeated meandering protests around the city? Has it become worn out as a revolutionary strategy? The glass taxidermy eyes of the buffalo only give the look of seeing and don’t register images.
“Gatekeepers are useless; they will either let your enemies in for or lockout your allies. Their only loyalty is to the power that you have given to them for your protection.” To quote a passage that Machiavelli might have written for The Prince.
Some art critics consider themselves to be gatekeepers on a border, quarantining art from being infected or sullied or something. Or to Biblically sort the sheep from the goats as an art world livestock judge. I don’t think that the role of the art critic is to be a defender of a walled-off definition or value judgements. Definitions and values change because art and language are not definitive but arbitrary.
Instead, I think of myself as an explorer of the liminal zones. Not a colonial explorer out there to conquer, rename, loot and pillage like the British in Africa. But as a tourist in an unstable region, a beachcomber of culture walking the tidal zone wondering what will have washed up. For boarders are never perfectly defined. The liminal zones, like tidal zone, are full of varied life in the space between definable borders. Down by the cultural seaside, I explore the tidal pools, look at what has been washed up on the beach and scan the horizon. Horizon scanning is better than gatekeeping because you can see what is coming rather than just assess values in the immediate present.
I wanted to be the kind of art critic that would go anywhere in Melbourne to see art from an industrial park in Burnside. To look at art on the streets, both authorised and unauthorised art. How art works in prison, in courtrooms or in a medical centre. These intersections afford alternate views of art. To enter these places is to engage in a different discourse about art.
Unlike most art critics, I will write about untrained and non-professional artists. Firstly, not everyone engaged in artistic activity has to be a professional artist, especially when they have a street-based practice. And to ignore the bulk of arts or art-related activity is to misrepresent the grassroots of art. It is art not as an item of trade but as a social pursuit, a tonic for mental health and local knowledge. Secondly, the role of an art critic is to provide the public with a context, a perspective to the art. To expand the conversation beyond ‘I like this’. To consider the past and future and not just the present.
I am doing this self-assessment because I wanted to avoid being a zombie art critic, stumbling around mindlessly to the same big name galleries. Or even any commercial galleries. Nor do I want to be a spruiker for national and state galleries, promoting infotainment and cultural imperialism. Instead, I want to cast my eye further afield. Suppose art is like a family tree, as Wittgenstein suggests family resemblance in defining games. In that case, art is likely to have some relatives that aren’t art. Who are art’s in-laws? Who are art’s uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents? Not in an evolutionary family tree sense but like at a birthday party.