Phoenix – After a Willem de Kooning painting worth millions of dollars was brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum in 1985, the staff hoped it would one day appear. But no one could have predicted that “woman ocher” would be revived by the kindness of a stranger in a neighboring country.
Olivia Miller, Interim Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, said: “Is it just a mysterious package in the mail? …I certainly didn’t expect to make friends from it.
The Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist’s 1955 oil painting is finally home and ready to be shown. This is the centerpiece of his entire exhibition, which opens Saturday and runs through May at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The entire ordeal of the theft and its return via Mexico in 2017 will be documented in the show. For the past two years, it has been in restoration and exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The painting is in the same place it was stolen, but under the case.
“This is one of the many layers of security that we have,” said Miller.
Like something out of a heist movie, the morning after Thanksgiving, the theft occurred. According to a curator at the time, a man and a woman showed up at the museum where there were only security guards and students working at the front desk.
The woman distracted the guards with small talk while the men went upstairs to the gallery. Police say he cut the painting out of his frame. The edges of the canvas were still attached. The entire robbery lasted 15 minutes. He left the picture rolled up.
There was no security camera system and no leads.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the 2015 theft, the museum displayed an empty picture frame at a press conference for inspiration.
The case broke down in August 2017 when David Van Auker, partner Buck Burns, and friend Rick Johnson purchased the painting, along with other items, at a property sale in Cliff, New Mexico. The trio own Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antique store in Silver City, 40 miles away. Said it looks like
Intrigued, Van Auker did a Google search. That led him to a 2015 article on theft. They immediately tried to contact Miller, the University of Arizona, and even the FBI.
Van Auker became afraid to protect the actual painting, which is reportedly worth $100 million.
“I stayed up all night with three guns and a painting behind my couch,” he recalls. “I was afraid someone would come and kill us because of this painting.”
He leaves a voicemail for Miller, making it clear that he is not interested in taking advantage of the reward or the situation.
“My favorite part was when he said something along the lines of ‘Record this’. I want the painting back. If it’s yours, it’s from college – come get the painting,” she said with a laugh.
Miller and the University Conservator made the three-hour drive from Tucson to Silver City the next day. They found enough signs to bring the painting back for further examination.
Its return triggered an FBI investigation. However, FBI Phoenix office spokeswoman Brooke Brennan said the case is now believed to be closed “after a thorough investigation.”
The estate on which this painting was painted belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter. The work of art hung behind the bedroom door. Relatives also found photographs that showed the couple were in Tucson on Thanksgiving in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have never publicly called them suspects.
Miller met the couple’s nephew earlier this year. When the story first came out, he didn’t believe they could have committed such a crime.
“Now that his shock has subsided, he understands that they may have stolen the painting,” Miller said.
Van Auker sometimes imagines that the painting may have fallen into different hands in New Mexico. The thrill of playing the opposite role never wears off.
He definitely wouldn’t trade the last five years of experience for money. His shop business sometimes he doubled or he tripled because people were moved by their actions. He, Barnes, and Johnson have been hailed as heroes at events at Tucson and the Getty Museum. They were on good terms with Miller and the rest of the museum staff and hosted them at their guest house in Silver City.
Not surprising given what Van Auker told Miller when she left with the painting in 2017.
“I said to Olivia, ‘We are destined to live now.’ She turned to me and said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ “