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September 29, 2022Tucson, AZ, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI Tucson leads efforts in transportation and security of repatriated painting back to University of Arizona

TUCSON, Ariz. — A painting stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art 37 years ago has been brought back home due in large part by the careful and meticulous planning by special agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in coordination with university police.

The painting, which captured international attention following its shocking 1985 theft and its recovery more than three decades later, arrived on campus via 18-wheeler with an HSI escort on the night of Sept 14. The truck had traveled 500 miles from the renowned J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the painting was displayed over the summer following a complex restoration by Getty conservators to repair damage sustained due to the theft.

“Woman-Ochre” will go on exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art on Oct. 8.

“The fact that this painting was found over 30 years later largely intact and now restored to a pristine condition is simply remarkable,” said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for HSI Phoenix. “Equally as important to bringing this painting back to UofA is our long and standing partnership with the university which paved the way to leading the effort in transporting the ‘Woman-Ochre’ from Los Angeles to Tucson. Having participated in a number of repatriation ceremonies, this is the first for us to be able to ensure a cultural and significant relic is returned to the citizens of Tucson. The success in bringing this painting to Tucson would not have been possible without the cooperation of so many people and agencies who spent countless hours contributing to this effort. I want to thank each and every one of you.”

Olivia Miller, interim director and exhibitions curator at UAMA, was among a small group of university staff and law enforcement officials to include HSI, gathered when the painting arrived on campus after dark.

“Seeing it come back was this moment of relief and peace of mind that yes, this painting has come home, she said. “It's not just us at the museum who are excited about it," she added. “Everyone on campus is excited, everyone at the Getty is excited. The fact that one painting can make all these people come together is – I don’t know – there really are no words for it.”

The stranger-than-fiction story of the theft of "Woman-Ochre" began the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, when a man and woman entered UAMA just as it opened for the day. While the woman made small talk with museum staff, her partner disappeared to an upstairs gallery where one of the works on display was “Woman-Ochre” – an oil painting completed in 1955 by Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and donated to the university in 1958. The man cut the painting from its frame, rolled it up and walked out the door with it. By the time a security guard noticed the painting was missing, it was too late. The pair was gone.

For years, the FBI had little to go on besides a rough sketch of the suspects and a description of a rust-colored sportscar leaving the scene. Then in 2017 there was a break in the case—a trio of antique dealers in Silver City, New Mexico, made the discovery of the stolen painting after cross referencing this news article.

HSI special agent Michael Torres was in charge of security related to bringing the painting back to Tucson accompanied the painting on its eight-hour drive across state lines. He and his team collaborated closely with UAMA, the Getty and the UofA Police Department to coordinate the painting's safe transport.

“It was really important that we treated it just as we would any investigation, with the seriousness of making sure that it was safe, that the drivers who were driving it were safe, and that no vandalism or theft of it was going to happen on our watch," said Torres. “I think it's absolutely fantastic that this painting can finally come back to its rightful place and were a big part of the homecoming.”

“Woman-Ochre was found shortly after I came to the University of Arizona, and I have been following the remarkable story with interest ever since," said UofA President Robert C. Robbins. “It is such a triumph to see this crown jewel of our art collection finally coming home to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which is part of what makes our campus a true arts destination. I am glad the painting’s return will bring even more patrons and appreciation to this incredible facility.”

HSI, through its 80 offices in 53 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, and is committed to pursuing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime related to the illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts by targeting high-priority organizations and strengthening international law enforcement partnerships. Since 2007, these partnerships have helped HSI repatriate more than 15,000 objects to over 40 countries and institutions. Members of the public who have information about the illicit distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or to complete the online tip form.

Updated: 10/06/2022