Stolen Willem de Kooning Painting Finally Found After 32 Years

Willem de Kooning Painting Finds its Way Home

Stolen Willem de Kooning Painting Finally Found After 32 Years | Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning | Artist Daily
The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton (r), exhibitions specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, registrar. Image courtesy of University of Arizona Museum of Art

Snatched nearly 32 years ago, Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning was finally returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) on Aug. 11. The prized painting was stolen the day after Thanksgiving on Nov. 29, 1985, at around 9 a.m., according to the museum.

The art heist went down without a hitch in only 15 minutes. The thieves, a man and a woman, followed an employee into the museum. The man went upstairs and cut the painting from its frame with a sharp blade while the woman distracted the security guard. The two were able to escape without reprimand.

“The thieves actually committed two crimes that day,” says Kimberly Andrews Espy, UA senior vice president for research, in the Museum statement. “First, they stole an important signature painting from the University’s museum collection. They also stole more than 30 years of access from the public and scholars across the world, depriving them of the opportunity to appreciate, learn from and be inspired by a significant artist.”

Good Samaritan Saves the Day

The public and art scholars do not have to be deprived of Woman-Ochre any longer, thanks to the actions of one good Samaritan in New Mexico, David Van Auker. The owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City recently purchased the de Kooning painting at an estate sale.

After displaying Woman-Ochre the following morning, he quickly started to receive comments about how it appeared to be a de Kooning original. Talk about good fortune! Well, not so much.

Stolen Willem de Kooning Painting Finally Found After 32 Years | Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning | Artist Daily
Detail of recovered “Woman-Ochre” painting by Willem de Kooning. Image courtesy of University of Arizona Museum of Art

After researching the artwork, Van Auker discovered an article about the 1985 theft of Woman-Ochre from UAMA. The painting pictured looked identical to the piece on display in his store.

The shop owner immediately called the museum to let the staff know he may have the stolen art. He also assured UAMA he wanted “only for it to be safely returned to the people of Arizona.”

“This was one of the most important moments in my life,” notes Van Auker in the UAMA statement. “I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it. I’m forever bound to that painting, and to the U of A.”

UAMA employees traveled to Silver City to bring the painting back to Arizona, returning it to a secure location in Tucson. The art was preliminarily authenticated to be the missing Woman-Ochre by Nancy Odegaard, world-renowned conservator and professor for the Arizona State Museum.

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” notes Meg Hagyard, director of UAMA, in the statement. “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. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.”

Painting Could Fetch a Pretty Penny

Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning. Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona/Bob Demers/UANews

Alongside artists including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, de Kooning was a trailblazer of Abstract Expressionism. Woman-Ochre is part of the artist’s famous “Woman” series, which he started in 1950. The series, greatly influenced by Pablo Picasso, explores the human figure.

Another painting in the series, Woman 3, was purchased for $137.5 million in 2006. And Citadel founder, Kenneth C. Griffin bought de Kooning’s Interchange back in 2016 for approximately $300 million at a private sale — which is the current record-holder for the world’s most expensive painting.

If de Kooning paintings bring in some serious bacon, what is the price tag for Woman-Ochre? Well in 2015, UA published an article stating the painting might be worth as much as $160 million.

“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,” explains Brian Seastone, chief of the University of Arizona Police Department, who at the time of the theft was the lead investigator on the case. “There’s this sense of relief and happiness — it’s a sense of calm. [The painting is] 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.”

What’s your favorite art heist story? Tell us in the comments!

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