AFTER a mysterious telephone tip and a breathless rush across north Dupont Circle yesterday, officials of the Phillips Collection art museum recovered the statue "Virgin of Alsace," stolen Wednesday from the museum's music room.
The small marble statue, valued at $35,000, was found wrapped in a green trash bag and lying in an alley behind an Amoco station at 18th and S streets NW.
The statue, by French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, was slightly damaged, with a small chip where the Virgin is holding the infant Jesus. Police have temporarily kept the chip, which was in the trash bag. The statue is back at the museum at 1600 21st St. NW, but not on public view.
Museum officials realized the 26-inch-high, 50-pound statue was missing from its place Wednesday afternoon after a guard saw a man and woman hurriedly leaving, the man with both arms around what appeared to be an object wrapped in a tweed coat.
The phone tip came at 11:30 a.m. yesterday from a woman museum director Laughlin Phillips thinks may have been one of the thieves.
"If you want to see your statue again you better take this down quickly because I'm only going to give it to you once," Barbara Grupe, Phillips' secretary, recalls the woman saying to her.
Grupe started writing fast on a pink call slip.
"She sounded like an American, young, educated. She sounded as if she were outside . . . I could hear traffic noises," Grupe said. "She sounded extremely anxious and under enormous stress. She was speaking very hurriedly."
Grupe, intent on getting the information right, carefully repeated everything back to the woman, and said that by the end of the call she had the woman saying everything twice, for accuracy.
"She said if we wanted, we would find the statue in an alley . . . between the Amoco station and the buildings behind it, next to a green car, wrapped in a green trash bag that was wrapped in a piece of black material," Grupe said.
"Hurry! You'll have to hurry because I'm not going to stay to watch it," Grupe recalled the woman telling her.
"I got the impression she could see it from where she was," Grupe said. "I asked her, 'Please wait and watch it for a minute because it will take us a while to get there. Can you watch it for just a minute?'
" 'I'll try,' the woman said."
"Then we both said thank you, or good-bye, and we both hung up."
At that moment, Phillips, returning to his third floor office after spending most of the morning with the police downstairs, came walking into view. Grupe jumped up from her desk and thrust the note at him.
"She's only going to stay at the statue for a minute!" Grupe told him.
"Let's go!" said Phillips.
Within moments, he got William Koberg, chief of exhibits, and the pair rushed downstairs and piled into Phillips' car while Grupe stayed behind to call the police. The drive was only a few blocks and Koberg, familiar with the neighborhood, directed Phillips to the alley entrance, where Phillips parked.
Phillips and Koberg jumped out and immediately examined a nearby green trash bag which, it turned out, contained trash.
"Bill said, 'This must be a hoax,' " said Phillips. "I kinda thought that was likely. Then I saw a friend, by pure coincidence, a photographer, down the alley. He said, 'What in the hell are you doing here?' I started to tell him this story, which he couldn't believe."
Meanwhile, Koberg, poking around cars parked in numbered spaces just off the alley, saw something that caught his attention in front of a green car. "I walked up to it . . . and there was this black plastic stuff," Koberg said. "I bent down and saw a bit of green trash bag under it, so I figured this was it. I . . . opened the trash bag at one end and saw the stone."
Phillips was still talking with his friend when Koberg exclaimed, "I've got it! I've got it!"
Phillips said his friend, the photographer, "was even more speechless when Bill showed up carrying this green plastic bag with a statue protruding from it."
At that point the men decided to be careful in order to preserve fingerprints and other evidence. They did not remove the statue from the bag, but put it in the car and drove back to the museum.
A police officer said yesterday afternoon there had been no arrests in the case. Phillips said police told him they are continuing the investigation.
At the museum yesterday, a conservator was studying the damage to the statue of the Virgin and Christ child sculpted in 1920 by Bourdelle, a French artist who studied under Rodin and who died in 1930. The conservator would seek to limit air damage to the chipped, exposed spot, possibly by an application of wax, Phillips said.
He said the statue will again "be on view, I hope, in a matter of weeks. It will be very securely installed in the same place."