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Tip leads to metal sculpture stolen from museum 10 years ago

Art Keeble, director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council, takes the metal horse inside after a press conference was called to announce its recovery. The Tampa Police Department got an anonymous tip that led to the recovery of the horse sculpture.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Art Keeble, director of the Hillsborough County Arts Council, takes the metal horse inside after a press conference was called to announce its recovery. The Tampa Police Department got an anonymous tip that led to the recovery of the horse sculpture.

TAMPA — Whenever Art Keeble drove along Bayshore Boulevard, he saw the metal horses in the median and was reminded of a widow, his own remorse and a similar sculpture made by the same artist.

The woven metal horse that galloped back and forth in Keeble's memory stood about 3 feet tall and 4 feet long. It had a slight list and eager ears that pointed forward. It was made by Bud Oleson, an Odessa artist who sculpted horses from strip metal. Oleson made horses that stood and some that kneeled, and he gave them a home in a pasture on Friendship Lane.

After he died, his wife, Louise Oleson, donated some — entitled Equinimity — for public art on Bayshore Boulevard. She also let Keeble, director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, borrow one for a city holiday display in late 1997.

The single unnamed horse, valued between $1,500 and $2,000, was lit up alongside giant Christmas cards on the steps of the Tampa Art Museum. After the first of the year, Keeble hitched the horse to the building until he could find the right time to give it back to the widow.

But then it was stolen. Despite a public plea and promise that there would be no punishment, no one came forward.

For 10 years.

On Wednesday, an anonymous e-mail came to Tampa police with a name. A vague phone message was also sent to Keeble that said little more than, "Did you all lose a horse a few years ago?"

Tampa police Detective Bob Baxter, who has caught people selling forged Picassos and helped an old man recover a vast guitar collection, began investigating. He followed the name and found an equine sculpture in the back yard of the Clifton Street home where Patricia Sutter, 34, lived.

"It was like holy cow," Baxter recalled thinking, "there's the horse."

He had Keeble come and identify it. It had been painted with white hooves and a stripe down the snout, but the art director was sure.

The detective called Sutter and told her the statue of limitations on grand theft ran out five years ago. If the horse was stolen, no one could be prosecuted. Sutter responded by saying the horse belonged to a boyfriend she had just broken up with, police said.

Later, she said an ex-boyfriend bought the horse from a yard sale in 1998 for $25, police said. She handed the horse over.

Sutter could not be reached by the Times.

The recovery of the sculpture brought relief to Keeble, who called the it the "prodigal horse." He looked forward to Monday, when he will give it back to Bud Oleson's widow, who is out of town.

"It's nice to have this one back in the fold," Keeble said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Tip leads to metal sculpture stolen from museum 10 years ago 07/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 11:55pm]
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