“Woman-Ochre,” a painting by Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, came to the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1958 — not long after its creation — and stayed there until its theft by a middle-aged couple the day after Thanksgiving in 1985.
The painting’s whereabouts remained a mystery for more than three decades until, in 2017, three antique dealers in Silver City, New Mexico, stumbled on the modernist piece hanging from a bedroom door in an estate sale in a rural area near Silver City and Gila National Forest. The dealers — David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson — contacted UAMA after customers began to ask if the work was an authentic de Kooning, setting in motion the painting’s return to Tucson.
“Woman-Ochre” had lost paint and had been sliced from its frame, so before its official UAMA return it was sent to conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This autumn, the painting at last returned to Tucson, stowed in a wooden crate inside an 18-wheeler escorted by Homeland Security. An exhibit introducing viewers to the earth-toned painting as well as its theft and homecoming will be held at UAMA through May 20.
As for the people involved in the painting’s recovery, the antique dealers and museum staff, including Interim Director Olivia Miller, have become friends. Says Miller, “We feel like the luckiest people in the world that the painting fell into their hands.”