Julian Assange: Artist's threat to destroy Picasso and Warhol masterpieces with acid 'helped free WikiLeaks founder'

25 June 2024, 07:53 | Updated: 25 June 2024, 09:54

An artist who planned to use acid to destroy famous masterpieces if Julian Assange died in prison believes the threat helped secure the WikiLeaks founder's release.

Andrei Molodkin claimed earlier this year he had gathered 16 works of art - estimated to be worth more than $45m (£35m) - in a safe with an "extremely corrosive" substance.

He said it would be triggered to destroy the artwork - including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt and Andy Warhol - unless a daily timer was reset following confirmation Assange was still alive in Belmarsh prison.

The project - called "Dead Man's Switch" - was backed by Assange's wife Stella and Molodkin says Assange himself now wants to open the safe so the artwork can be returned to the owners.

The Russian dissident artist - who lives in France - told Sky News the outrage caused by his threat showed that "to destroy art is much more taboo than to destroy the human life".

Asked if he thought Dead Man's Switch had helped free Assange, Molodkin replied: "I think it took some part.

"Now I will go in the safe and deactivate the explosive material. I will not open the safe because Julian would like to open it.

"I will just deactivate everything (to avoid) accidents."

He added: "The owners are really happy… the owner of the Picasso is very, very happy.

"Every day was a big stress. If something happened (to Assange)… we understood we would have to destroy (the art)."

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Molodkin - who said he received a message from Stella Assange following her husband's release - expects the artwork will be returned to the owners in the next few months.

Italian art gallery owner Giampaolo Abbondio told Sky News he provided the Picasso piece for the safe and signed a non-disclosure agreement preventing him from revealing which one.

"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 we're talking about a human life," Mr Abbondio said.

Speaking in February, Mrs Assange called the Dead Man's Switch "a work of art", while describing her husband's imprisonment as "an act of real terrorism against democracy".

US authorities have now agreed to drop their demand for Assange to be extradited from the UK after reaching a plea deal with him.

American prosecutors had alleged that Assange put lives at risk when he helped former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks put online in 2010.

Assange was filmed boarding a plane and is due to appear at a court on Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, on Tuesday.

The hearing is taking place in the US Commonwealth territory because of Assange's opposition to travelling to one of the 50 American states and the court's proximity to Australia, his country of birth.