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46 years later, NDSU seeks answers in mysterious art theft

Was it a student prank or an act by seasoned criminals? Either way, a painting nabbed in 1975, now worth $12,000, is still gone.

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Gallery Director Anthony Faris talks about the 1975 case of the stolen lithograph by Richard Diebenkorn on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at the Memorial Union Gallery at North Dakota State University, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

FARGO — North Dakota State University is trying to get to the bottom of a 46-year-old mystery behind the theft of a valuable work of art from the Memorial Union Gallery in May of 1975.

The work of art, a lithograph titled “Woman Seated at a Table” by artist Richard Diebenkorn, is now estimated to be worth about $12,000. The head of the gallery, an artist by trade, has turned into an amateur detective, doubling down on efforts to get to the truth.

He’s put together an exhibit about the crime not far from where the piece was nabbed and is inviting everyone to join the investigation. Was it a sophisticated art heist or the result of a silly college prank?

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A reproduction of the 1975 lithograph by Richard Diebenkorn is displayed Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at the Memorial Union Gallery at North Dakota State University, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

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College shenanigans?

In early May of 1975, NDSU may very well have been ripe for some shenanigans. It was a stressful spring by many accounts. The Fall of Saigon, marking the end of the Vietnam war, happened just two weeks earlier, and the economy was still in recession, meaning an uncertain job outlook for new college graduates. Couple that with the stress of final exams, and many students at North Dakota State University were probably ready to blow off a little steam.

For some, it came in the form of the Spring Blast All-Nighter.

“The Spring Blast was a multi-day event where the union was open 24 hours,” said gallery coordinator Anthony Faris. “There was a Las Vegas night, music, film, massages. They did it every year.”

Only in 1975, something else happened. Sometime between May 9 and May 15, a work of art, the Diebenkorn, was stolen from a student lounge. Back in the ‘70s, Faris said, the school wanted the artwork to be enjoyed by students, so pieces were placed where students could view them regularly instead of in a gallery.

“We still have an issue today, where you want the artwork in the vault, which is owned by all students, to be accessible to them, and that's why we do an annual show,” Faris said, “And we've done things like the virtual reality program to allow people to access all of the works in our collection.”

Today, the works are under lock and key and under the watchful eye of cameras, but that wasn’t the case in ‘75. The school art, a lot of which was hung in meeting rooms and lounges, was an easier target.

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In the intial memo regarding the theft of the painting the artist was misidentified. Submitted photo

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A pattern of theft

It wasn’t the only time a painting went missing from the union. The year before, in 1974, a work by Robert Nelson was slashed. In the year following the Diebenkorn theft in 1975, a print by Nelson was stolen. In 1983, a work titled “January” by Gordon Mortensen was stolen.

“I think that during the ‘70s, this was a little bit more common because I found a story about bikes being stolen, dorm mirrors being taken. They say that these were pranks that were happening around the time,” Faris said.

He has been in touch with the alumni center to see if officials there could reach out to anyone who might have attended NDSU in 1975 to see if they saw or heard anything.

He uncovered some clues, including a classified ad that ran in the NDSU Spectrum newspaper right after the crime, where someone thanked a certain fraternity on campus for “stealing us away the other night. It was so inspiring,”

“It probably means nothing, but that's the question when you're investigating something,” Faris said. “This was in the Spectrum within a week of the theft. And there's the word ‘stealing.’ Does this mean anything?”

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Gallery Director Anthony Faris pulls an Andy Warhol print from storage Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, at the Memorial Union Gallery at North Dakota State University, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Forum Communications Co.

Faris says he doesn’t think there was an “ill meaning" with the theft where the thieves intended to sell the work of art for a profit. In fact, after it was stolen and everyone had a good laugh, the culprits might have not known what to do with it.

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“Returning something is difficult, especially after it's been taken, right? So that's why we want to have this conversation again," he said. "This is part of someone’s memory from that time. Maybe someone is ready to talk about it."

Faris and NDSU even said whoever has the piece can return the work, no questions asked.

“Forty six years, we have this piece that exists somewhere. It’s an object in somebody's house, somebody's basement somewhere, and somebody knows where it went. And we would just love it to be returned to the students,” Faris said. “It's not necessarily about how valuable it is, or even where it's been, as much as it is that it's part of our story. It's part of our history.”


For more information

What: "Cold Case: The Week Richard Disappeared" Exhibit

When: Oct. 19-Nov. 4

Where: NDSU Memorial Union

Reception: Nov. 2, 5-7 p.m. with a talk by Susan McCombs (formerly Madigan) - Gallery Coordinator in 1975.

If you have any in formation about the missing piece of art, please contact the Memorial Union Gallery Tipline at 701-231-8239 or james.faris@ndsu.edu .


Related Topics: ART
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