Arizona Museum exhibit marks end of De Kooning’s painting saga

PHOENIX — After a Willem de Kooning painting worth millions was brazenly stolen in 1985 from an Arizona museum, staff clung to hope that it would one day come to life. But no one could have predicted that “Woman-Ocher” would find her way home thanks to the kindness of strangers in a neighboring state.

“I would kind of imagine what it would be like,” said Olivia Miller, acting director and curator of exhibits at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. “Would it just show up as a mystery package in the mail or something? … I certainly never thought I would make friends with them.

The Dutch-American Abstract Expressionist’s 1955 oil painting is finally home and ready for display. It will be the centerpiece of an entire exhibit that will open October 8 through May at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The entire ordeal of the flight and its 2017 return via New Mexico will be chronicled on the show. He has spent the last two years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for restoration and exhibition work. The painting will be in the same place it was stolen – but in a slipcase.

“It’s one of the many layers of security he’ll have,” Miller said.

Almost like a heist movie, the robbery took place the day after Thanksgiving. A man and a woman showed up at the museum where only a security guard and students working at reception were present, according to the curator at the time.

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

There was no security camera system and no leads.

On the flight’s 30th anniversary in 2015, the museum displayed the empty frame at a press conference in hopes of generating clues.

A break in the deal came in August 2017 when David Van Auker, his partner Buck Burns and their friend, Rick Johnson, purchased the painting along with other items at an estate sale in Cliff, New Mexico. The trio own Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antique store located 40 miles away in Silver City. When they brought it back to the store, three different customers noticed how much it looked like a real de Kooning.

Interest piqued, Van Auker did a Google search. This led him to a 2015 article on theft. They immediately tried to contact Miller, the University of Arizona and even the FBI, he said. But no one answered them right away.

Van Auker became terrified of saving what might be the actual painting said to be worth $100 million.

“I sat all night with three guns and paint behind a couch,” he recalls. “I thought someone would end up coming and killing us for this painting.”

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

“My favorite part was him saying something like, ‘Put that on the record. I want you to get the painting back. If it’s yours, the one from the university, come get the painting,” she said with a laugh.

Miller and a college curator made the three-hour drive from Tucson to Silver City the next day. They found that there were enough clues to take the painting back for further verification. A restorer considered it a true de Kooning.

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

The estate the painting came from belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter. The artwork hung behind a bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo showing the couple were in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have never publicly called them suspects.

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

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

Van Auker sometimes imagines if the painting had fallen into different hands in New Mexico. The thrill of playing a part in his return never fades.

He certainly wouldn’t trade the experiences of the past five years for money. His store’s business sometimes 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 remained friends with Miller and the rest of the museum staff, even hosting them at their guest house in Silver City.

That’s no surprise considering what Van Auker told Miller when she left with the painting in 2017.

“I said to Olivia ‘we’re bonded for life now.’ She turned to me and said, “Yeah, I know that.”

Follow Terry Tang on Twitter at @ttangAP.

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