Artist says he’ll destroy $45M worth of Rembrandt, Picasso and Warhol masterpieces if Julian Assange dies in prison

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An artist in the south of France says he’s planning to destroy up to $45 million worth of art, including pieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, and Andy Warhol, if Wikileaks founder Julian Assange dies in prison, British broadcaster Sky News reports.

Andrei Molodkin told Sky that he put a collection of masterpieces that had been donated to him into a 29-ton safe hooked up to two barrels — one containing an acid powder and the other containing an accelerator — which, when pumped into the safe, will create a reaction strong enough to destroy all its contents.

The project is called “Dead Man’s Switch,” and it is backed by Assange’s wife, Stella. Assange is currently in jail in the U.K. awaiting his final appeal over extradition to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act, which will take place later this month. Wikileaks published thousands of leaked documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Assange is alleged to have conspired to obtain and disclose U.S. national defense information.

The Wikileaks founder denies any wrongdoing, and his lawyer says his life is at risk if he loses his appeal.

“In our catastrophic time — when we have so many wars — to destroy art is much more taboo than to destroy the life of a person,” Molodkin, who is originally from Russia but now lives in France, told Sky News. “Since Julian Assange has been in prison… freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of information has started to be more and more repressed. I have this feeling very strongly now.”

The safe will be sealed on Friday at Molodkin’s studio in France, and it will eventually be moved to a museum, Sky News reports.

Molodkin says that the safe will be hooked up to a 24-hour timer which must be reset every day or else it will trigger the release of the two barrel’s corrosive substances inside. He says, each day, the timer will only be reset when someone “close to Assange” confirms he is alive.

Giampaolo Abbondio, a Milan art gallery owner, told Sky News he initially rejected Molodkin’s idea, but has now donated a Picasso to the project.

“It’s more relevant for the world to have one Assange than an extra Picasso, so I decided to accept [Molodkin’s offer to participate]” Abbondio said. “Let’s say I’m an optimist and I’ve lent it. If Assange goes free, I can have 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 we’re talking about a human life.”

Artist Franko B told Sky News that he has donated one of his own pieces to be put in the safe.

“I thought it was important that I committed something I care about. I didn’t donate something that I found in the corner of my studio. I donated a piece of work that is very dear to me that talks about freedom, censorship,” Franko B said. “It’s important. It’s a small gesture compared to what Assange did and what he’s going through.”

Assange’s wife, Stella, says the project asks the question of “which is the greater taboo: destroying art or destroying human life?”

“The true targets here are not just Julian Assange but the public’s right to know, and the future of being able to hold power accountable,” Stella told Sky News. “If democracy wins, the art will be preserved – as will Julian’s life.”

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