$160 million painting returns to university 40 years after theft, Arizona campus says

Robert Demers/University of Arizona

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1984, a woman distracted security guards at the University of Arizona Museum of Art with small talk while her partner was busy in an upstairs gallery.

A man cut “Woman-Ochre,” a 1955 abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, from its frame, rolled it up and walked out with it, the university said in a news release.

The painting, now valued at up to $160 million, remained missing for nearly 40 years, KRQE reported. It was found among the belongings of a deceased woman in 2017.

“We got a call from a man named David Van Auker who lives in Silver City, New Mexico. And he had bought the painting at an estate and immediately wanted to return it to the museum,” Olivia Miller, interim director and curator of exhibitions at the museum, told the station.

The painting had been hanging behind a door in a woman’s home until Van Auker, an antique dealer, purchased it after her death, the university said.

The museum retrieved and authenticated the painting after Van Auker, learning of the search for the missing painting, contacted university officials.

“That’s when we were finally able to breathe,” Miller said in the release. But the painting had been badly damaged during its time away.

In 2019, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to restore “Woman-Ochre.” The work took several years.

“The painting came to us in very poor shape,” said Ulrich Birkmaier, senior paintings conservator at the Getty Museum. “The brutal way in which it was ripped from its lining caused severe paint flaking and tears, not to mention the damage caused by the blade that was used to slice it from its frame.”

After some time on display at the Getty Museum, “Woman-Ochre” is now back at the University of Arizona, where it returns to public display on Saturday, Oct. 8.

“It is such a triumph to see this crown jewel of our art collection finally coming home to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which is part of what makes our campus a true arts destination,” Robert C. Robbins, president of the university, said in the release.

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