An empty wooden frame once occupied by Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” sits at the center of a gallery at the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art in Tucson.
Next to it are the composite drawings of two people police say stole the painting the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. The museum wants to remind visitors of the heist in hopes that a new lead in the 30-year unsolved mystery will appear.
“We have not given up hope about getting the painting back,” Gina Compitello-Moore, the museum’s marketing director, said. “By not having it, it’s almost as if a member of our family is missing.”
The painting by the abstract expressionist was stolen on Nov. 29, 1985 from the small museum that also has works by Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The museum had just opened when a man and a woman walked in. They were the sole visitors. The woman, described as being in her mid-50s with shoulder-length reddish and blond hair, distracted the a security guard by making small-talk while the man, who appeared to be in his 20s and wore a mustache and glasses, cut the painting from the large frame, leaving the edges of the canvass attached.
Within minutes, they were gone, taking with them one of the museum’s most important pieces. The painting was valued at about $600,000 when it was stolen.
“We have no idea why this particular painting was stolen. It could have been the size of the work. It could have been that this is probably his most recognized work,” Compitello-Moore said.
Brian Seastone, the university’s police chief, was an officer back then who helped investigate the heist. He says the department, along with the FBI and other agencies working the theft, received a number of tips that led them nowhere.
“The gentleman pretty much knew what he wanted, it appeared, and went upstairs. And after a few minutes they both left very quickly and it drew the attention of the security officer who was there,” Seastone said. “Since then, it’s kind of become not a legend but one of those things that’s out there that people will talk about once in a while.”
Seastone says the man’s mustache and glasses may have been fake, an effort to disguise himself, and that the woman also may have been in costume.
Compitello-Moore said now is a good time to bring attention to the stolen painting because it could have changed hands by now, and its owner could not know they have a stolen piece.
“We’re happy to have to have the frame in there but we of course wish it were the painting,” she said.