$160 million painting stolen from Tucson in 1985 recovered

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Woman-Ochre" by Willem de Kooning, 1954-1955, 30 in. x 40 in., oil on canvas (Photo courtesy of UAMA) Woman-Ochre" by Willem de Kooning, 1954-1955, 30 in. x 40 in., oil on canvas (Photo courtesy of UAMA)
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

A $160 million painting stolen during a daring heist in Tucson more than 30 years ago has been found and returned to its rightful owner.

Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art by an unknown couple the day after Thanksgiving in 1985.

In 2016, the museum told Tucson News Now a staff member was followed into the museum by a young man and older woman.

The suspects asked to enter the museum early and were allowed in. The woman distracted one of the security guards while the man walked upstairs to the gallery.

"The painting was cut out of its frame," the University of Arizona said in a news release. "The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes."

The security guard said he had feeling something was up with the two and after finding the frame with the missing painting, tried to catch them but it was too late.

"The only conclusion we can come to is that it was a work for hire, the two were paid to steal it," curator Olivia Miller said.

Sketches of the art theft suspects. (Source: University of Arizona Art Museum)

The Discovery

UA said David Van Auker, an antiques dealer in Silver City, NM, bought the painting at an estate sale recently and put it on display in his store.

"He began receiving several comments about how it appeared to be an original work by de Kooning," UA said. "Van Auker began researching the piece and discovered an article about the theft from UAMA in 1985. The painting in the article looked identical to the painting sitting in his store."

Van Auker called the museum and said he would like to return it. Museum staff traveled to Silver City and safely brought it back to Tucson on Monday, Aug. 7.

The school said preliminary authentication confirms it is de Kooning's work.

"It's a great day for the University of Arizona and great news for the art world and people who care about public art," UA President Robert C. Robbins said. "I want to acknowledge and thank David Van Auker. He's the hero who worked so hard to make sure the painting was returned to its rightful home."

No Leads

There is no word on how the painting made its way to the estate sale, but federal officials will want to find out.

As Tucson News Now's Kevin Adger reported last year, the case was being investigated by the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

According to a 2015 story from UA, FBI Special Agent Meridith Savona was assigned to the case.

Savona spent 14 years investigating organized crime before joining the Art Crime Team and said art criminals "make those con artists look like
Boy Scouts."

According to Savona, about 80 percent of museum thefts are committed by staff or those in a position of trust. She said the UA case stands out because artwork is usually stolen while its in storage.

One of the officers who responded to the theft in 1985 was Brian Seastone, who is now the chief of the University of Arizona Police Department.

In 2016, Seastone told Tucson News Now he remembers getting leads on the case but nothing ever panned out.

"Every time I go by the art museum, I think about that particular day and the impact it had on the campus and the art world,” Seastone said at the time.

Seastone said he's elated the painting is now back where it belongs.

"I was always optimistic that one day we would find the painting, but it's hard to describe the emotion of it coming home," he said. "There's this sense of relief and happiness. It's a sense of calm. It's back, it's home, it's where it should be. We know the art is worth an awful lot of money, but the story behind it is priceless."

This empty frame holds the edges of the missing artwork. (Source: Emily Litvack / UANews)

Who is Willem de Kooning

UA said de Kooning was a "pioneer and leader of abstract expressionism, a movement that began in New York after World War II."

"It was popularized by artists including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as well as de Kooning, who began his "Women" series in 1950," UA said in a news release. "The series, heavily influenced by Picasso, is considered monumental in the way that it imagines the human figure. In 2006, another de Kooning painting in the series, sold for $137.5 million."

Conservator and professor Nancy Odegaard was the one to preliminarly authenticate the painting.

Odegaard, of the Arizona State Museum, said she spent two hours completing a visual examination of the painting and the remnants left behind from the original.

"Several characteristics were consistent with the recorded history of the painting, including documented repairs, alignment of the cut lines in the canvas and brush strokes on the recovered painting that lined up with marks on the convas remnants, and the painting was authenticated as the original work," UA said.

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