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UAMA recovers valuable painting after 31 years

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The University of Arizona Museum of Art

"Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, has been returned to the UA Museum of Art after being missing for 31 years.

A stolen painting by a Dutch American artist has finally been found and returned to its home at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The Willem de Kooning piece, “Woman-Ochre,” was discovered in a deceased couple’s home in Silver City, New Mexico.

UA President Dr. Robert Robbins called the find “a great day for the University of Arizona and great news for the art world and people who care about public art.”

The painting was taken from the museum the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. Although there were no security cameras at the time, police believed a man and a woman followed a museum employee through a side door. According to a UANews story, while the woman distracted the employee, the man cut the painting from its frame, and the two vandals disappeared with the painting. 

Thought lost forever, the painting resurfaced in the home of a recently deceased couple.

Jerome and Rita Alter owned the home the painting was found in. During a recent estate sale, antiques and furniture collector David Van Auker bought the painting along with a few other pieces. At first, he had no idea what he had stumbled on.

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Then, visitors to his shop in Silver City, New Mexico, kept saying the painting looked like a de Kooning. One customer even offered Van Auker $200,000 for the painting. So, Van Auker and his partner Buck Burns hid the painting and did a Google search. That turned up a 2015 Arizona Republic article detailing the history of the missing painting, which just so happened to look exactly like the piece they had in their possession.

Soon, Van Auker was on the phone with the UA Museum of Art. 

“This was one of the most important moments in my life,” he said to UANews. “I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it. I’m forever bound to that painting and to the UA.”

Several museum employees drove out to Silver City, where a friend of Van Auker’s kept the painting safe in his home.

Director of the museum, Meg Hagyard, called the experience a “monumental moment for the museum” and said the painting’s return would “complete once again something that we’ve always hoped for.”

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The painting was brought back to the museum and authenticated by Arizona State Museum conservator and professor of anthropology and material science and engineering Nancy Odegaard. The process took two hours as she examined the frame and the treatment the painting had undergone since its departure from the museum.

According to an article in the New York Times, De Kooning paintings are increasingly valuable. In 2016, his painting “Interchanged” sold for nearly $300 million. An estimate in the Arizona Republic values “Woman-Ochre” at $100 million.

De Kooning was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist who died in 1997. He was part of the famous “New York School” of artists that also included Jackson Pollock.

The UA Museum of Art is open year-round and offers tours, exhibits and special programming for guests and students. Its permanent collection holds more than 6,000 works of art. Admission is free for students with ID and staff.


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