Almost 32 Years Later, a Stolen Willem de Kooning Returns Home

Willem de Kooning's signature on the recovered Woman-Ochre (1954-1955) (detail) | Courtesy of the University of Arizona Museum of Art
Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 16 August 2017
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It only took a matter of minutes for a man and woman to cut Willem de Kooning‘s priceless canvas from its frame on November 29, 1985. The swift and collaborative theft left the University of Arizona Museum of Art to wonder if they’d ever see the masterpiece again—but thanks to the three honest co-founders of an antique store in New Mexico, the painting has finally been returned home.

Last week, the University of Arizona announced that Woman-Ochre (1954–1955), part of Willem de Kooning’s Woman series, had been not only found, but returned by the three co-owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques.

Manzanita’s David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson had purchased the painting for an undisclosed amount as part of an estate. Thinking the artwork was “cool and unique,” Burns told the New York Times, it was placed in the shop window. After several customers noted its uncanny likeness to a de Kooning, the trio returned the painting to the University of Arizona Museum of Art on suspicion that it was the long-lost masterpiece.

Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre, 1954-1955
Courtesy of the University of Arizona Museum of Art

When the painting was stolen from the university museum 31 years ago, it was valued at approximately US$600,000, artnet News reported. In 2015 (three decades following the notorious event), UANews published an article estimating its worth at around US$160 million, though at the time, its whereabouts were still unknown.

“We didn’t pay anywhere near $160 million for it,” Burns told artnet News, and considered the turn of events a “happy coincidence.” The museum’s conservator, Nancy Odegaard, subsequently determined the painting’s authenticity.

Nancy Odegaard, Arizona State Museum Head of Preservation, prepares recovered de Kooning painting for inspection and authentication
Courtesy of the University of Arizona Museum of Art

According to the New York Times, the painting was publicly unveiled at a news conference on August 14. While it remains in “relatively good condition considering the theft, there is damage to be fixed before it can go back on the walls,” and will therefore be sent for restoration before its grand reappearance.

“There’s this sense of relief and happiness,” chief of the University of Arizona Police Department, Brian Seastone, commented in a statement. “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.”

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