The recovered Willem de Kooning painting Woman-Ochre, held by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff (Photo: Courtesy of the University of Arizona)

The amazing story behind this stolen Willem de Kooning

Woman-Ochre found on the wall of a New Mexico couple's bedroom where it had hung for the last 32 years

Phil Collins was number one in the charts and Charles and Diana were being entertained by Ronald Reagan in the White House when a middle-aged couple calmly walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art in November 1985, wandered up to the second floor and cut a Willem de Kooning painting from its frame and made their escape.

“The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman chatted with a security guard. The man spent just under 10 minutes on the second floor, cutting Woman-Ochre out of its wood frame with a sharp blade,” the museum said in a statement at the time.

"Leaving remnants of the painting's canvas edges behind, the man slipped the painting under a garment, walked back down the stairs and reunited with his accomplice. The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes."

The painting wasn't seen again until earlier this month, when it was found hanging on the bedroom wall of a New Mexico couple's house when an antiques dealer acquired it as part of an estate sale.


A photo fit picture of the suspects released at the time of the theft
A photo fit picture of the suspects released at the time of the theft

The theft had taken place on the morning of 29 November 1985, but a description of the couple - both wearing thick framed glasses and wearing a red and a blue coat respectively - failed to turn up either culprits or the painting itself and it was presumed lost forever. 

This summer, David Van Auker, who owns Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in New Mexico, was contacted about purchasing the contents of a home in the area, according to the Silver City Daily Press. Van Auker visited the home to assess its contents.

“They had a really nice mid-century bedroom set. One of the doors was off the dresser unit. The open bedroom door was blocking it,” he told the Daily Press. “I wanted to see if the door was broken or could be repaired. I had to move the bedroom door, and that’s when I saw the painting.” Van Auker bought the entire contents of the home for $2,000. 

The newspaper has identified the home's owners as Jerry and Rita Alter, who led quiet but cultured lives, travelling often. After customers to the antiques shop commented that the painting looked like a De Kooning, including one who offered to buy it for $200,000, Van Auker put in a little research and realised the piece matched the one stolen 32 years ago. 

Speaking at a press conference at the museum yesterday he said: “We returned something that was stolen. That’s just something everyone should do. The dollar amount doesn’t matter. My partners and I, we didn’t even have a discussion about it, we just knew it had to come back.”


Our Willem de Kooning monograph
Our Willem de Kooning monograph

Van Auker said he believed the painting had stayed in the house since its disappearance. “When you purchase an estate like that, you sort of get to know the people, because you’re going through their papers and their medicine cabinets. I just had the feeling, that it went from here to there and never moved.” Another Modernist painting retrieved from the house is currently being looked at by authorities. The De Kooning has now been returned to Arizona and will be restored.  

“I was always very optimistic that one day we would find the painting, but it's hard to describe the emotion of it coming home,” said Brian Seastone, chief of the University of Arizona Police Department. “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.”

Want more priceless de Kooning? You'll find it here in Judith Zilczer's fascinating yet exhaustive monograph of the artist.