University of Arizona Museum of Art staff holding the recovered de Kooning. Photo: University of Arizona.

Stolen de Kooning Returned to Arizona Museum After Nearly Thirty-Two Years

A Willem de Kooning painting titled Woman-Ochre, 1954–55, which had been stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art nearly thirty-two years ago, has finally been returned. The work was found by David Van Auker, the proprietor of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, when he was contacted about buying out the furnishings of a nearby home where the painting was located, writes Helen Stoilas of the Art Newspaper. The de Kooning was hidden within a bedroom. Van Auker purchased the contents of the home for $2,000. Customers to his shop said the work looked like a de Kooning—one man even offered to buy it for $200,000. But after Van Auker did some research, he found the piece matched the one lifted from the museum. He contacted the institution and the FBI in order to give it back. “This is a monumental moment for the museum. We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries,” said Meg Hagyard, the museum’s director.

Jerry and Rita Alter, a quiet couple who enjoyed culture and liked to travel, owned the house where the painting was located. Ronny Roseman—the couple’s nephew and the executor of the their estate—said that he had “been informed by the authorities not to discuss the estate.” Van Auker believes the work never left the home after the theft: “When you purchase an estate like that, you sort of get to know the people, because you’re going through their papers and their medicine cabinets. I just had the feeling, that it went from here to there and never moved. I could be wrong.” Another modernist work from the Alters’ collection is currently being investigated.

The museum said the theft occurred at 9 AM on November 29, 1985, when a man and a woman followed a staff member into the building. In a statement, the museum said, “The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman chatted with a security guard. The man spent just under ten minutes on the second floor, cutting Woman-Ochre out of its wood frame with a sharp blade. Leaving remnants of the painting’s canvas edges behind, the man slipped the painting under a garment, walked back down the stairs and reunited with his accomplice. The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist took no more than fifteen minutes.”