RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Thirty years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century was stolen from an Arizona museum. And that painting's whereabouts is still a mystery. Vanessa Barchfield of Arizona Public Media reports.
VANESSA BARCHFIELD, BYLINE: Staff at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson were getting to work, just like any other day.
OLIVIA MILLER: And the security guards opened the door for one of the staff members and two people followed behind.
BARCHFIELD: Olivia Miller, who's the museum's curator today, says it was close enough to opening time that the guards let the man and woman come in. They started climbing a flight of stairs to the second floor, and the guard followed. In the middle of the stairwell, though, the woman stopped and turned to chat with the guard. Her partner continued on up.
MILLER: A short time later, the man came back down the stairs. And he and the woman left.
BARCHFIELD: A little odd, the guard thought. Then he walked up to the second-floor gallery to discover any guard's worst nightmare - an empty frame where one of the institution's most prized pieces had hung. Willem De Kooning's painting, "Woman Ochre," had been sliced out of its frame. The painting is part of the abstract expressionist's celebrated Woman series. Another work in the series sold about a decade ago for more than $137 million. The museum estimates that today its painting could be worth as much as 160 million. It was a huge loss. University of Arizona police chief Brian Seastone was a campus cop 30 years ago and was one of the first investigators to arrive at the scene.
BRIAN SEASTONE: It was almost a hollow experience because it was so empty.
BARCHFIELD: And to make matters worse, there were basically no leads - no fingerprints, no license plate from the getaway car - just a description of how the couple looked.
MILLER: The woman was a bit older. She had a scarf around her head. She was wearing glasses. The man had dark hair, had a mustache.
BARCHFIELD: That's all the cops had to work with because it turns out in 1985, the museum didn't have any security cameras. No one who was working at the museum that day wanted to be interviewed. And the question remains - where is the painting? Irene Romano, a professor at the University of Arizona and an expert on art plunder, says in general, people who steal works like this are not art lovers.
IRENE ROMANO: They're hired by others to do the dirty work, and then the works of art pass into the underworld and are traded for drugs and arms and cash.
BARCHFIELD: Today, all the public can see of "Woman Ochre" are the frayed edges of the canvas in its empty frame. The museum sometimes puts that on display. Curator Olivia Miller says the case remains open.
MILLER: We'll always keep hope that the painting will come back, and at the same time we're always going to know that our collection is incomplete. And that's the sad part about it.
BARCHFIELD: The University of Arizona Museum of Art got just $400,000 in insurance money for the painting, which it used to install cameras and beef up security. And these days, it stays closed the day after Thanksgiving. For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Barchfield.
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