Three Hours Away, 30 Years Gone: Stolen de Kooning Returns

By:
Ford Burkhart, Chris Richards photo
Staff at the University of Arizona Museum of Art examine the recently returned Willem de Kooning painting “Woman-Ochre.” The frame from which it was cut stands on the right.
It was the UA’s version of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Instead of a stolen Monet, this plot centered on a looted de Kooning. But the ending was just as stunning.
 
As the final page in a purloined-painting mystery stretching over 30 years, a work by Willem de Kooning was spotted at a late schoolteacher’s New Mexico home and returned in August by an antiques shop to a grateful University of Arizona Museum of Art.
 
Asked if the teacher was suspected in the brazen crime, in which one thief may have worn women’s clothing as a disguise, UA Police Chief Brian Seastone replied: “That’s an investigative lead, absolutely: high on our list.”
 
“It was something right out of a movie,” Seastone says. The museum doors open. One thief hurries upstairs. An accomplice distracts the guard. Minutes later they rush out the door with the painting, which won’t be seen again for 32 years, until it’s discovered at an estate sale. “Now that’s incredible,” Seastone says.
 
It made headlines in The New York Times, and indeed worldwide, after the story broke on Friday, Aug. 11, in The Arizona Republic. 
 
The shop owner did not ask for a penny, saying, “We just wanted to right a wrong.”
 
The painting, “Woman-Ochre,” arrived back on campus Aug. 6 with all the fanfare due the homecoming of art worth at least $100 million, perhaps $160 million. The journey was short: a three-hour trip with museum and UA security officials from Silver City, New Mexico. 
 
The painting had turned up there in Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, along with other items bought on Aug. 1 from the estate of a couple who had hung the de Kooning in their bedroom.
 
The shop paid $2,000 for furniture, pottery and art that included the de Kooning.
 
The painting vanished Nov. 29, 1985, 27 years after it was donated to the UA by Edward J. Gallagher Jr., a Baltimore businessman. It was one of the largest gifts in UAMA history. The 1950s de Kooning was one of the icons of the campus collection, now numbering 6,000 items, says UAMA Marketing Manager Gina Compitello-Moore. 
 
De Kooning was prominent in the abstract expressionist movement that included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, both of whom are also part of the UAMA collection.
 
As the story goes, on Aug. 1 the owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, David Van Auker, was wandering through a home in Cliff, New Mexico, 30 miles northwest of Silver City, snapping photos of bedroom sets and pottery. Just another work day.
 
Van Auker noticed a canvas in a bedroom. He bought it, along with other items, headed back to town and dropped off the painting at the store.
 
After three customers said that it could be an authentic de Kooning, with one offering $200,000 for it, the shop hid the painting in a bathroom. Later Van Auker came upon an article in The Arizona Republic headlined “Unsolved Arizona mystery: de Kooning painting valued at $100 million missing for 30 years.” 
 
Convinced — and worried — that he had the real thing, Van Auker moved it to a friend’s house and called the UAMA. He reached Meg Hagyard, the new interim director, who informed the UA Police Department and the FBI and organized a large delegation, 16 in all, to Silver City.
 
The team wrapped the canvas in protective layers and took it to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office to be crated and transported back to Tucson. 
 
At the UAMA, the 30-by-40-inch painting was placed in the vault. The staff became convinced it was “Woman-Ochre” when they saw that the canvas had a brushstroke of jet-black paint on the upper left-hand side that aligned with a stroke on a scrap of canvas left by the thief.
 
The 1985 theft unfolded at about 9 a.m., when a museum security officer opened the front door of the museum and two visitors entered. One went to the second floor and stayed just long enough to cut “Woman-Ochre” out of its frame with a razor blade and slip it under a garment before the two walked out. It took no more than 15 minutes.
 
At the time of the theft, a $10,000 reward was offered for return of the de Kooning. The UA police are not sure whether that amount will still be paid. The painting was insured for $400,000, which was paid to UAMA and returned after the de Kooning was recovered.