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Stolen painting remains a mystery at U of A

Posted at 11:06 AM, Nov 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-26 13:06:41-05
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- It was the day after Thanksgiving in 1985 when a man and woman walked in to the University of Arizona Museum of Art. A security guard had opened the door to let in an employee around 9 a.m., and the couple followed.
 
As the woman spoke with a guard, the man went to the second floor. That's when investigators believed he used a razor to cut William de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" out of it's frame. The suspects quickly left the building and the painting was never seen at the museum again.
 
While the 30th anniversary of the heist approaches, museum staff says the theft still haunts everyone in the building.
 
"Every security decision we make now, has been influenced by this incident and by this theft," said marketing manager Gina Compitello-Moore.
 
Compitello-Moore couldn't discuss the details of the museum security, but says they now have cameras and increased patrols. Today the stolen painting would be hanging among the works of Jackson Pollock and Georgia O'Keeffe. 
 
"The abstract expressionist movement was really big in the United States post World War II," Compitello-Moore said. "So having this de Kooning, was a very important piece of our collection."
 
The empty frame is on display at the museum, Compitello-Moore said, because they want to raise awareness about about the crime.
 
Over the years there have been some leads, but very few details. The suspects are described as a woman in her mid-50's with shoulder-length reddish-blonde hair, wearing a scarf and read coat. The man had olive-colored skin, had a mustache, and was wearing a blue coat.
 
Some speculate they may have been wearing disguises, Compitello-Moore said, and no one really knows why they chose to take "Woman Ochre." With the upcoming anniversary, museum staff remains helpful.
 
"Thirty years is a time when a collection can change hands from one member of a family to another, or maybe it's trying to be sold," Compitello- Moore said. "And often people inherit artwork that they don't know is stolen."
 
Today the painting may be worth up to $160 million. The stolen art was part of a series of de Kooning and was a gift from Edgar Joseph Gallagher Jr. Another painting in the same series called "Woman II" was sold in 2006 for $137.5 million. Compitello-Moore says for the museum, it's not about the money. She says they are missing a piece of history that can't be replaced.
 
"This isn't something we can really forget about," Compitello-Moore said. "It's like losing a family member and it effects everyone. Even though none of us who currently work here were here at the time, it's something we think about all the time. It's not a loss you recover from quickly." 
 
According to a press release from the U of A, about 80% of U.S. museum thefts reported to the National Stolen Art File are committed by employees of the museums. Experts say that's what makes this particular case unusual.
 
The FBI is the lead in the investigation. If you have any information, you can contact the FBI tip line at 1-800-CALL-FBI, or the University of Arizona Police Department at (520) 621-UAPD.