The exhibition at the Arizona Museum marks the end of de Kooning’s painting saga – 71Bait

PHOENIX (AP) – After a multi-million dollar painting by Willem de Kooning was brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum in 1985, staff clung to hope that it would someday turn up. But no one could have foreseen that “Woman Ocher” would find its way back through the kindness of strangers in a neighboring state.

“I could imagine what that would look like,” said Olivia Miller, interim director and exhibition curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. “Would it just show up in the mail as a mysterious package or something? … I never thought I would make friends out of this.”

The 1955 oil painting by the Dutch-American abstract expressionist is finally back home and ready to be shown. It will be the centerpiece of an entire exhibit that opens October 8 through May at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The full ordeal of the theft and its return in 2017 across New Mexico is chronicled on the show. It has spent the last two years in restoration work and on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting is in the same place it was stolen – but under a suitcase.

“That’s one of many layers of security it’s going to have,” Miller said.

Almost like a heist movie, the theft unfolded the morning after Thanksgiving. A man and woman showed up at the museum, where only a security guard and students were present at the reception desk, according to the curator at the time.

The woman distracted the guard with small talk while the man walked to an upstairs gallery. He cut the painting right out of the frame, police said. The edges of the canvas were still attached. The entire raid lasted 15 minutes. He left with the rolled up painting.

There was no security camera system and no leads.

On the 30th anniversary of the theft in 2015, the museum displayed the empty frame at a press conference in hopes of getting tips.

A breakthrough in the case came in August 2017, when David Van Auker, his partner Buck Burns, and their friend Rick Johnson bought the painting along with other items at a real estate sale in Cliff, New Mexico. The trio own Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antiques store in Silver City, 40 miles away. When they brought it back to the store, three different customers remarked that it looked like a real de Kooning.

His interest piqued, Van Auker did a Google search. That led him to a 2015 article about the theft. They immediately tried contacting Miller, the University of Arizona and even the FBI, he said. But no one contacted them immediately.

Van Auker was afraid to secure the actual painting, which could reportedly be worth $100 million.

“I sat behind a sofa all night with three guns and the painting,” he recalled. “I thought someone would eventually come and kill us because of this painting.”

He even left a voicemail for Miller, clarifying that he wasn’t interested in a reward or taking advantage of the situation. Miller found the voicemail endearing and wants to include it in the exhibit.

“My favorite part was that he said something along the lines of ‘Put that on record.’ I want you to get the painting back. If it’s yours, the university – just come and get the painting,” she said, laughing.

The next day, Miller and a university conservator made the three-hour drive from Tucson to Silver City. They found there was enough evidence to take the painting back for further examination. A restorer thought it was a real de Kooning.

His return sparked an FBI investigation. But the case is now considered closed “after a thorough investigation,” said Brooke Brennan, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Phoenix office.

The property from which the painting is taken was owned by Jerry and Rita Alter. The artwork had hung behind a bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo showing the couple had been to Tucson for Thanksgiving in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities never publicly named them suspects.

Miller met the couple’s nephew earlier this year. When the story first came out, he didn’t think they could have committed such a crime.

“Now that the shock has worn off for him, he can now see that they might have been the ones who stole the painting,” Miller said.

Van Auker sometimes wonders if the painting would have fallen into different hands in New Mexico. The thrill of playing a part in his return never wears off.

He would definitely not trade the experience of the last five years for money. At times, his store’s business has doubled or tripled because people were touched by their actions. He, Burns and Johnson were hailed as heroes at events in Tucson and at the Getty Museum. They have remained friends with Miller and the rest of the museum staff, even hosting them at their guest house in Silver City.

No surprise given what Van Auker said to Miller when she left with the painting in 2017.

“I said to Olivia, ‘We’re tied for life now.’ She turned to me and said, ‘Yes, I know that.’”

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Follow Terry Tang on Twitter at @ttangAP.

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