Stolen De Kooning Painting Returned to Museum After 3 Decades

Staff members evaluate the recovered de Kooning.
Staff members evaluate the recovered de Kooning.
( University of Arizona)

A Willem de Kooning painting that had been stolen more than 31 years ago from the University of Arizona Museum of Art has been found and returned. A Silver Spring, New Mexico, antiques and furniture dealer discovered the work in an estate sale.

Dealer David Van Auker says he bought the work because he thought it was "cool." After he hung it in his shop, customers began saying they thought it was a De Kooning, with one offering $200,000 for it. Some online research showed the work matched De Kooning's “Woman-Ochre” stolen from the museum in 1985.

Becoming nervous, Van Auker stashed the painting in a bathroom and immediately called the museum.

At a press conference on Aug. 14, 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.”

The painting is said to be valued at $160 million.

An investigation continues into how the painting turned up in the retirees' estate. The late Jerry and Rita Alter were identified by the Silver City Daily Press as owning the home where the painting was found on a bedroom door.

The decades-old theft occurred when a man and woman followed a staff member into a 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,” said a museum statement.

The museum has since returned a $400,000 claim for the De Kooning to its insurance company. The painting is under restoration.

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