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Acid to destroy masterpieces by Picasso, Rembrandt and Warhol if Julian Assange dies in prison, says artist

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An artist has defended plans to destroy masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt and Andy Warhol with acid if Julian Assange died in prison.

Andrei Molodkin says he has collected 16 works of art – which he estimates are collectively worth more than $45 million (£42.77 million) – in a 29-ton safe containing an “extremely corrosive” substance.

Inside the safe are boxes containing the artwork and a pneumatic pump connecting two white barrels – one containing acid powder and the other with an accelerator that could cause a sufficiently strong chemical reaction to turn the contents of the safe into debris, Molodkin claims.

Famous works of art will be destroyed with acid in a safe if Julian Assange dies in prison, artist Andrei Molodkin has said.  Photos: AP/The foundry studio
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Julian Assange in 2017 – and the safe was supposed to contain artwork that would be destroyed if he died in prison. Photos: AP/The foundry studio

The project – called “Dead Man’s Switch” – is supported by Assange wife Stella, whose husband is awaiting his final appeal against extradition to the United States, where he faces charges under the Espionage Act.

THE Wikileaks The founder is wanted in the United States for an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defense information following the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 52-year-old denies any wrongdoing.

He has been detained at Belmarsh Prison in London for almost five years and his final appeal will be heard at the High Court in London on February 20 and 21.

Assange’s supporters say he faces 175 years in prison if extradited. His lawyer says the Australian’s life “is in danger” if the appeal fails.

Stella Assange, the wife of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  Photo: PA
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Stella Assange supports Andrei Molodkin’s “Dead Man’s Switch” project. Photo: PA

Molodkin told Sky News: “In our catastrophic times – where we have so many wars – destroying art is far more taboo than destroying a person’s life.

“Since Julian Assange has been in prison… freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of information have started to be repressed more and more. I have this feeling very strongly now.”

The Russian dissident refused to reveal what artworks are inside the safe, but says it includes works by Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Rauschenberg, Sarah Lucas, Santiago Sierra, Jake Chapman and Molodkin himself, among others.

The safe contains acid that can be triggered to destroy the artwork, explains Andrei Molodkin.  Photo: Andrei Molodkin/The Foundry Studio
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The works of art are contained in boxes, the artist explains. Photo: Andrei Molodkin/The Foundry Studio

“I believe that if something happens and we erase a masterpiece, it will be erased from history – no one will know what kind of work it was,” he says.

“We have all the documentation and we have photographed them all.”

The safe will be locked on Friday and it is kept in Molodkin’s studio in the south of France, the artist says, but he plans to move it to a museum.

Explaining how the “Dead Man’s Switch” works, he explains that a 24-hour countdown must be reset before it reaches zero to prevent the release of corrosive materials.

Sketch by Andrei Molodkin for the project.  Photo: Andrei Molodkin/The Foundry Studio
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Molodkin’s sketches for the Dead Man’s Switch project. Photo: Andrei Molodkin/The Foundry Studio

He says this will be done by “someone close” to Assange confirming that he is still alive in prison each day – meaning the clock can be restarted.

If Assange is released from prison, the artworks will be returned to their owners, Molodkin adds.

He admits that “a lot of collectors are really scared” of accidentally leaking acid, but insists the work was done “very professionally”.

Molodkin says he would feel “no emotion” if the art was destroyed because “freedom is much more important.”

Artist Andrei Molodkin
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Artist Andrei Molodkin

Giampaolo Abbondio, owner of an art gallery in Milan, claims he provided Picasso’s work for the vault and signed a confidentiality agreement preventing him from revealing which one.

He said his first response when asked to participate was, “No way,” but he was convinced by Molodkin, whom he has known since 2008.

“It made me realize that it is more important for the world to have one Assange than one more Picasso, so I decided to accept,” Mr Abbondio told Sky News.

“Let’s say I’m optimistic and I lent it. If Assange is released, I can get it back.

“Picasso can vary from 10,000 to 100 million but I don’t think it’s the number of zeros that makes it more relevant when it comes to a human life.”

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June 2022: Why is Assange wanted by the United States?

Artist Franko B says he provided one of the works that will be kept in the vault.

“It’s a beautiful piece… it’s one of my best pieces,” he told Sky News.

“I thought it was important to do something that is close to my heart. I didn’t donate something I found in the corner of my studio. I donated a work which is very dear to me and which speaks of freedom, of censorship.

“It’s important. It’s a small gesture compared to what Assange has done and what he’s going through.”

Who is the controversial artist Andrei Molodkin?

Andrei Molodkin made headlines last year after selling blood-soaked copies of Prince Harry’s memoir.

The artist had previously projected a sculpture filled with the blood of Afghans onto St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Both stunts were intended to protest Harry’s remarks in his book about his casualty count in Afghanistan.

Previously, to coincide with the World Cup in Qatar, Molodkin unveiled a replica of the World Cup trophy which was slowly filling with crude oil. Its symbolic price was $150 million – a figure that matched the amount of money allegedly spent on bribes and kickbacks to FIFA officials.

Molodkin also presented a White House sculpture said to have contained the radioactive blood of men born in Nagasaki to commemorate the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 2022, Molodkin presented a glass portrait of Vladimir Putin filled with the blood of Ukrainian soldiers. An image of the artwork was reportedly broadcast live near Moscow’s Red Square as Mr Putin oversaw Russia’s Victory Day parade.

In 2013, Molodkin opened an exhibition called Catholic Blood which featured an installation in which he pumped blood donated only by Catholics around his replica of the rose window of Westminster Abbey, which he saw as a Protestant symbol.

Learn more:
Fugitive or hero? Timeline of Assange’s legal battle
Vivienne Westwood’s family ‘disappointed’ that Assange was refused permission to attend funeral
Who are the leakers from American intelligence?

Ms Assange, who has two children with her husband, told Sky News: “Which is the bigger taboo: destroying art or destroying human life?

“Dead Man’s Switch is a work of art. Julian’s political imprisonment is a true act of terrorism against democracy.

“The real targets here are not just Julian Assange, but also the public’s right to know and the future of the ability to hold power to account.

“If democracy wins, art will be preserved, as will Julian’s life.”

Assange has been held in Belmarsh prison since his arrest in April 2019 after leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had requested political asylum in June 2012.

The British government approved the extradition of Assange in the United States in June 2022.

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