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Stolen art pieces find their way back home ... eventually

SEATTLE — If you're returning two large works of stolen art, you're going to need a bigger truck than an El Camino.

That's one lesson to be learned from a new wrinkle in the Whiting Tennis affair last week, when two works by the artist, which had been missing since December, were recovered.

A little background: Six paintings and one small sculpture by Tennis were in transit last December from the artist's North Seattle studio to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, where they were set to be part of a one-man show, "Whiting Tennis: My Side of the Mountain."

Museum representatives, in Seattle to pick up the pieces, put them in a rental truck, which was then stolen from a parking lot at the Holiday Inn Express where they were staying.

Greg Kucera, whose gallery represented Tennis, estimated the seven artworks to be worth $65,000.

Fast forward to last week: Kucera received a call on his cellphone Thursday from a man saying a friend of his had found two of the paintings in an alley in Seattle.

After requesting verification of the find, Kucera received images of "Blue Hamburger" and "Document," the two largest of the stolen paintings. He thanked the caller for the information, and asked how he could get the paintings back.

The caller, who kept his last name from Kucera, came to the gallery to make sure Kucera wasn't involving the police (which Kucera himself was reluctant to do; he just wanted the artwork back). The caller then asked if there was still a reward for the paintings. Kucera said he could offer $1,000.

The man wanted to know if his friend could get the $1,000 and he could get $100 for his role in the exchange.

Kucera agreed to that, adding, "But this is the end of our negotiation."

They arranged for the payment to be in cash and for the paintings to be returned directly to the gallery. Then came that bit of car trouble: The caller got back in touch with Kucera to inform him that the canvases couldn't fit in his friend's El Camino.

"He asked if we could pick them up in Federal Way," Kucera said. "I said we could."

Kucera and Guy Merrill, the gallery's installer, rented a van and headed ("like 'Starsky & Hutch' ") to the designated rendezvous spot.

Was he at all apprehensive about the rendezvous?

"You know," Kucera says, "I wasn't, because the guy had already come in and introduced himself."

There, at the 7-Eleven, was the space-challenged El Camino — and at a house a short drive away, Kucera handed the cash for the paintings over to his contact.

"Then he said he needed a job," Kucera says, "and asked if we had any jobs for him. I shook his hand, thanked him, and said I wished him luck with his life. ... It did catch me by surprise."

Four paintings and a small sculpture are still missing. Kucera hopes to keep the channels open, if that will lead to recovery of the stolen artwork.

In an email he sent to members of the media, he said, "I'm quite sure we could not have gotten these back without the help from TV, blogs and newspapers. Whiting and I thank you all for what you have done."

Incidentally, Tennis' winter exhibit in Salem went ahead as planned, with other artworks substituted for the missing ones.