University of Arizona Museum of Art marks 30-year anniversary of stolen painting
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University of Arizona Museum of Art marks 30-year anniversary of stolen painting
Willem De Kooning, Woman - Ochre, 1954-55, Oil on canvas, Gift of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr.

TUCSON, ARIZ.- On Friday, Nov. 29, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, a coveted painting was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

The painting was "Woman-Ochre," one of six Willem de Kooning paintings in a series exploring the figure of a woman. "Woman III," another in the series, sold in 2006 for $137.5 million — at the time, the second-most expensive painting ever sold.

The story of the theft of "Woman-Ochre," full of intrigue though sparse in detail, continues to haunt museum staff even after the passing of 30 years.

At approximately 9 a.m. on that fateful day, a security officer opened the front door of the museum to let a staff member into the lobby. Two visitors — a man and a woman — followed inside.

The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman engaged in small talk with a security guard. The man spent a little less than 10 minutes on the second floor, cutting "Woman-Ochre" out of its wood frame with a sharp blade. Leaving remnants of the painting's canvas edges behind, the man slipped the painting under a garment, walked back down the stairs and reunited with his partner.

The two hurried out of the museum, hopped into a rust-colored sports car and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, the guard, suspicious only because of the hasty nature of the visitors' exit, walked up the stairs to find the empty frame. He ran downstairs, but it was too late. The visitors — described as a woman in her mid-50s with shoulder-length reddish-blond hair, wearing tan bell-bottom slacks, a scarf on her head and a red coat, and a man with olive-colored skin, wearing a blue coat — were gone.

The case remains open. Kristen Schmidt, registrar at UAMA, said the museum still feels the loss.

"A former boss of mine told me once that, in this business, if something you are responsible for is broken, lost or stolen, it feels like a death," Schmidt said. "Of course, we don't put the value of the objects in the collection on the same level as the value of a human being's life, but the process is the same: shock, grief, loss.

"It is not that we cannot feel their presence anymore," she said. "It is instead that we can very keenly feel their absence."

The piece would be one of the most valuable in the museum's collection today, worth between $100 million and $160 million.

If and when the stolen de Kooning painting is restored to UAMA's collection, Schmidt said museum staff would attempt to place it back in its original frame.

"At the museum, we believe art is essential to our daily lives — it's in our mission," Schmidt said. "Art is everywhere and comes in many forms. Therefore, crime involving art also affects our lives, often in ways we are not aware."

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