The University of Arizona Museum of Art issued a press release this morning revealing the return of a Willem de Kooning painting from the Woman series. The painting had been stolen in 1985 but recently found in an estate sale. When put on display, many viewers remarked that the work seemed to be a de Kooning.
The owner subsequently did research which led him to articles like this one from NPR two years ago identifying the stolen painting. The University’s press release tells the story:
Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” stolen the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, has been returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art by a good Samaritan from New Mexico. Preliminary authentication confirms it is the famous painting.
The painting was cut out of its frame in a UAMA gallery by a man and a woman who followed a museum staff member inside at approximately 9 a.m. on Nov. 29, 1985. The woman distracted the security guard while the man went upstairs and cut “Woman-Ochre” from its frame with a sharp blade. The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes.
The painting recently was purchased at an estate sale by David Van Auker, owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico. The next morning, he put the painting on display in his store and quickly began receiving several comments about how it appeared to be an original work by de Kooning. Van Auker began researching the piece and discovered an article about the theft of “Woman-Ochre” from UAMA in 1985. The painting in the article looked identical to the painting sitting in his store.
Van Auker immediately called the museum to inform staff and to assure them he wanted only for it to be safely returned to the people of Arizona. Museum staff traveled to Silver City to retrieve the painting and safely returned it to a secure location in Tucson on Monday.
“It’s a great day for the University of Arizona and great news for the art world and people who care about public art,” said UA President Robert C. Robbins. “I want to acknowledge and thank David Van Auker. He’s the hero who worked so hard to make sure the painting was returned to its rightful home.”
The artist, de Kooning, was one of the pioneers and leaders of abstract expressionism, a movement that began in New York after World War II. It was popularized by artists including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as well as de Kooning, who began his “Women” series in 1950. The series, heavily influenced by Picasso, is considered monumental in the way that it imagines the human figure. In 2006, “Woman 3,” another de Kooning painting in the series, sold for $137.5 million.
The painting retrieved from New Mexico was preliminarily authenticated by world-renowned conservator and professor Nancy Odegaard of the Arizona State Museum.
Odegaard spent two hours completing a thorough visual examination of both the painting and the remnants left behind from the original. Several characteristics were consistent with the recorded history of “Woman-Ochre,” including documented repairs, alignment of the cut lines in the canvas and brush strokes on the recovered painting that lined up with marks on the convas remnants, and the painting was authenticated as the original work.
“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” said Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries. This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre’ was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history.

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