The Saga of a Stolen Painting Worth as Much as $100M Ends

On Oct. 8, de Kooning work will once again hang in the University of Arizona Museum of Art
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 29, 2022 5:15 PM CDT
Saga of de Kooning Brazenly Stolen in 1985 Comes to Close
"Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, is readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz., in August 2017.   (Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP, File)

After a Willem de Kooning painting worth millions was brazenly stolen in 1985 from an Arizona museum, the staff clung to the hope that it would turn up one day. But nobody could have predicted "Woman-Ochre" would find its way back through the kindness of strangers in a neighboring state. Now back home, the AP reports, the 1955 oil painting will be the centerpiece of an entire exhibition opening Oct. 8 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The whole ordeal of the theft and the painting's return in 2017 via New Mexico will be chronicled in the show. The work has spent the past two years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for restoration work and display. The painting will soon be in the same spot it was stolen from—but under a case.

Almost like something out of a heist movie, the theft unfolded the morning after Thanksgiving. A woman distracted the security guard with small talk while the man who was with her went to an upstairs gallery. He cut the painting right out of the frame and left with the painting rolled up. There was no security camera system, and there were no leads. A break in the case came in August 2017 when David Van Auker bought the painting at an estate sale in Cliff, New Mexico. He's a co-owner of Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antique store 40 miles away in Silver City. Once displayed at the store, three different customers remarked on how it looked like a real de Kooning. His interest piqued, Van Auker did a Google search.

That led him to a 2015 article about the theft; he immediately attempted to contact the University of Arizona and even the FBI, he said. But nobody got back to him right away. Van Auker became terrified about safeguarding what could be a painting reportedly worth $100 million. "I sat up all night with three guns and the painting behind a sofa," he recalled. "I thought somebody would end up coming and killing us for this painting." He even left a voicemail for curator Olivia Miller making it clear that he was not interested in any reward or taking advantage of the situation.

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Miller and a conservator with the university made the three-hour drive from Tucson to Silver City the next day. They found there were enough indications to take the painting back for further verification. A conservator deemed it a real de Kooning. Its return triggered an FBI probe, but the case is now considered closed "following a thorough investigation," per an FBI rep. The estate the painting came from belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter. The artwork had been hanging behind a bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo that showed the couple had been in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities never publicly called them suspects.

(Read more art heist stories.)

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