ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A painting that was stolen from it’s frame nearly 40 years ago is finally getting returned back to the very same wall it was stolen from. “I know how rare this is. This does not happen often. We are incredibly lucky,” says Olivia Miller, interim director and curator of exhibitions at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
‘Woman-Ochre,’ painted by Willem de Kooning in 1955 is considered an influential piece of American abstract impressionism. It was donated to the Museum of Art at the University of Arizona three years later, and traveled the nation and the world to be exhibited in galleries.
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However, its stay in the museum was abruptly cut short: “The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, it was kind of a quiet day for the museum. It was just opening up in the morning and a couple entered the museum. The woman distracted the security guard before they could take their position in the gallery, and meanwhile, the man went upstairs and sliced ‘Woman-Ochre’ from its frame,” Miller says.
Local police and even the FBI investigated the heist, but the case went cold. In 2015, the museum held a program about art crime and circulated their story on the internet in the hopes that someone, somewhere might know something.
“Occasionally I would think, ‘Oh, maybe a package will turn up at the museum and it’ll be the painting’ but you know I don’t think I ever really took that seriously,” Miller says. But then, in 2017 a surprise discovery was made: the $160M painting was found right here in New Mexico.
“We got a call from a man named David Van Auker who lives in Silver City, New Mexico. And he had bought the painting at an estate and immediately wanted to return it to the museum,” Miller says.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last stop for the painting. It was held as evidence in the crime and had to undergo a very complex conservation treatment at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles before being transported by a specialized art truck accompanied by Homeland Security back to where it all began.
“It’s priceless. This is a painting we searched for a long time for. This is also a work that has incredible educational and cultural value…we’re actually gonna put the painting back upstairs and it will hang on the very same wall that it was stolen from,” Miller says.
There were never any charges brought for the theft of this artwork. The painting was found in a New Mexico couple’s home in their bedroom and sold in an estate sale for $2,000 dollars when they died.
Beginning October 8, ‘Woman-Ochre’ can be seen at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.