A New Mexico couple had a stolen De Kooning painting hanging in their bedroom, the local newspaper Silver City Daily Press reports. Woman-Ochre, which was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art 30 years ago, resurfaced this month when a New Mexico antique dealer acquired it as part of an estate sale. When the “good Samaritan” realized what it was, the painting was swiftly returned to the university.

According to the museum, the theft took place at 9 am on 29 November 1985, when a man and a woman followed a museum staff member inside the gallery. “The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman chatted with a security guard. The man spent just under 10 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 15 minutes,” the museum said in news statement.

Arizona police circulated a composite sketch of the thieves and they were described by the university in a 2015 post about the theft as: “a woman in her mid-50s with shoulder-length reddish-blond hair, wearing tan bell-bottom slacks, a scarf on her head and a red coat, and a man with olive-colored skin, wearing a blue coat. Both had thick-framed glasses.”

A 6 December 1985 edition of the Arizona Daily Star included this sketch of the De Kooning theft suspects

This summer, David Van Auker, who owns Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in New Mexico, was contacted about purchasing the contents of a home in the area, the Silver City Daily Press reports. Van Auker visited the home with his business partners Richard Dean Johnson and Buck Burns to assess the furniture and art left in the home. “They had a really nice mid-century bedroom set. One of the doors was off the dresser unit. The open bedroom door was blocking it,” Van Auker told the Daily Press. “I wanted to see if the door was broken or [could be repaired]. I had to move the bedroom door, and that’s when I saw the painting.” The dealers bought the contents of the home, including furniture, some African masks and other pieces, for $2,000.

The newspaper has identified the home’s owners as Jerry and Rita Alter, who led quiet but cultured lives, travelling often. When contacted by the Daily Press last week, the estate’s executor and the Alters’ nephew Ronny Roseman, said he had “been informed by the authorities not to discuss the estate”. The university and Van Auker both declined to comment about the estate. A spokesman for the FBI said the agency “has an active and ongoing investigation into the theft of the painting”.

After several customers to the antiques shop suggested the painting looked like an original De Kooning, including one man who offered to buy it for $200,000, Van Auker did some online research and realised the piece matched the one stolen from Arizona 30 years ago. He immediately called the university and the FBI to return the work.

Speaking at a press conference at the museum on Monday, Van Auker said: “We returned something that was stolen. That’s just something everyone should do. The dollar amount doesn’t matter… My two partners and I, we didn’t even have a discussion about it, we just knew it had to come back.”

When asked what he thought had happened to the painting after its theft in 1985, Van Auker said he believe the work had remained in the same home for nearly 32 years. “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,” Van Auker explained. “I just had the feeling, that it went from here to there and never moved. I could be wrong.” Van Auker also revealed that the dealers took about 40 other pieces of art from the home—mostly canvases done by the family—including another Modernist painting that authorities are investigating.

The De Kooning has now been returned to Arizona and is due to be restored. “This is a monumental moment for the museum,” its director Meg Hagyard said in a statement. “We are thrilled at the possibility that this work could once again be on exhibit in our galleries.”

“I was always very optimistic that one day we would find the painting, but it’s hard to describe the emotion of it coming home,” said Brian Seastone, the chief of the University of Arizona Police Department, who was a public information officer at the time of the theft and has continued to search for Woman-Ochre since then. “There’s this sense of relief and happiness. It’s a sense of calm. It’s back, it’s home, it’s where it should be. We know the art is worth an awful lot of money, but the story behind it is priceless.”

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