Willem de Kooning's painting 'Woman-Ochre,' stolen in 1985, comes home to Tucson
Artwork estimated to be worth $130 million
A renowned abstract expressionist painting, stolen from a University of Arizona museum in 1985, was restored and finally returned this week after being located in New Mexico in 2017.
For years, an empty frame hung in the UA Museum of Art. A painting had been cut out of its home in broad daylight, the Friday after Thanksgiving in 1985.
All that was left of Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" was an inch of canvas and a mystery that was unsolved for 30 years. A couple who had trailed into the museum right as it opened were last seen driving off in a rust-colored car.
"Woman-Ochre" is now back in the museum after a long process of retrieval, confirmation and restoration. The museum hosted a press conference Thursday with a panel of six people who were involved in returning the painting home: FBI art crime Special Agent Tim Carpenter, Homeland Security Investigations Agent Leo Llamas, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques David Van Auker, former UA Police Chief Brian Seastone, museum interim director and curator of exhibitions Olivia Miller and Ulrich Birkmaier, senior paintings conservator of the Getty Museum.
"That day I got here, I saw tears of absolute sorrow, misbelief that this could happen here," Seastone said.
Van Auker, who runs the antique shop in Silver City, N.M., had received a phone call from a man who was looking to sell items in Rita and Jerry Alter's home after Rita Alter's death in 2017. The man was Rita Alter's nephew Ron Roseman. A mid-century abstract painting was hung tucked away by the door of the master bedroom. Van Auker liked the art, and bought it for his shop.
That led to two customers recognizing it as a de Kooning painting. One man offered $200,000 for it and urged Van Auker "to investigate it."
"In the fourth page of Google searches, there it was," Van Auker said. He found coverage by the Arizona Republic about how the painting had been stolen. Miller received an unexpected call from Van Auker.
Over the years, the staff at UAMA had began to worry the painting had been trafficked across the country or flown out of the country to be sold on the underground market in stolen artworks, some hope was found.
Miller said she knew instantly when she saw it and because of the skewed dimensions, she knew it was authentic due to the remaining inch of canvas on the frame. Still, there was concern it could be a fake.
She expressed she felt relief when the painting was authenticated by Arizona State Museum conservator Nancy Odegaard, but there was another issue — "Woman-Ochre" was in dire condition. The paint had creased and flaked. It was evident the painting had been neglected.
"My colleague, Laura Rivers, who is associate paintings conservator at the Getty, spent about two years under the microscope setting down each tiny flake of paint," Birkmaier said.
The painting, a pivotal work of 20th century abstract expressionism, is estimated to be worth as much as $130 million.
Once de Kooning's lady was ready to be transported home to Tucson, HSI agents transported her in a caravan from Los Angeles, California.
"The painting itself was actually boxed up in a big 18-wheeler truck," Llamas said. "We provided the security all the way from Los Angeles to here and just made sure it was done."
With the painting back in its home, the collection will be renamed after Manzanita Ridge as gratitude towards Van Auker being "a good Samaritan."
"I see de Kooning's work as a part of a larger timeline of our history," Miller said. "This painting of this woman, which is a bit garish, you know, it's not traditionally beautiful, and it can still incite all kids of conversations about art and about the history of representation of women in art."
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.