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Recovered de Kooning: The Good & The Bad News

September 24, 2022
recovered de Kooning painting

Credit: J. Paul Getty Trust

In 1985 a couple walked into The University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona, and quickly walked out with Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955). According to Olivia Miller, the museum’s curator, the thieves came in just as the museum was opening. While the security staff was heading to their posts, the man went to where the painting was hanging. The woman started talking to one of the guards — stopping them from getting to their post (near the de Kooning). The man came down the stairs a few minutes later, and the couple left. Once the security guard entered the space, she noticed that the de Kooning had been cut from its frame. There were no cameras, so the case went cold.

Fast forwards to 2017 when a New Mexico antique dealer, David Van Auker, bought a collection of items from the Jerry and Rita Alter estate sale for $2,000. Among the items was a painting that hung behind their bedroom door. Van Auker placed the painting in his store, and it wasn’t until someone offered him $200,000 for it that he decided to do a little research. It didn’t take him too long to discover the work was the stolen de Kooning.

The good news is the work was recovered; the bad news is that it was badly damaged and needed a great deal of conservation; the process, done by the Getty, took almost three years. When completed, the restored painting went on view at the Getty Center for a short time and is now back at the Arizona museum … it will be on view beginning October 8. If you are interested in learning more about this case, you will soon be able to watch it on the Big Screen.

Source: A purchase at a small town sale turned out to be a ‘priceless’ de Kooning painting stolen in 1985