Stolen Willem de Kooning Painting Returned to the Arizona Museum

A stolen Willem de Kooning painting taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 has been returned to its rightful owner.

Oct 9, 2022By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
The inspection and authentication of the recovered Willem de Kooning painting
University of Arizona staff at the inspection and authentication of the recovered Willem de Kooning painting Woman-Ochre (1954–55), ©the Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Demers/UANews, courtesy of the University of Arizona Museum of Art


After a Willem de Kooning painting worth millions was brazenly stolen in 1985 from an Arizona museum, the staff clung to the hope that it would turn up one day. However, no one could have foreseen that Woman-Ochre, (1954-55) would return, thanks to the generosity of strangers in a neighboring state. 


Painting’s Comeback as a Symbol of Peace and Relief

De Kooning artworks on display, via Arizona Public Media


Woman-Ochre, (1954-55) was discovered in 2017 by the Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques gallery in New Mexico, which had acquired Jerry and Rita Alter’s estate for $2,000 after they both passed away. The museum’s temporary director, Olivia Miller, recounted the moment when she saw the long-lost work. “I was able to kneel down on the floor in front of it and take it in. It was a really special moment”, said Miller.


Miller also stated that seeing the painting’s comeback represented a moment of relief and peace. “Everyone on campus is excited, everyone at the Getty is excited. The fact that one painting can make all these people come together is—I don’t know—there really aren’t words for it.”


How Was the Painting Stolen in the First Place?

Portrait of Willem de Kooning in his studio


The Alters, who were schoolteachers, are now suspected of stealing the work in broad daylight the day after Thanksgiving, with Rita distracting the security guards so Jerry could cut the painting out of its frame. The heist only took 15 minutes. A break in the case came in August 2017 when David Van Auker, his partner Buck Burns and their friend, Rick Johnson, bought the painting along with other items at an estate sale in Cliff, New Mexico.

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Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1954–55) in August 2017, shortly after it was recovered in New Mexico and returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art. ©2019 the Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Van Auker searched Google because he was curious and that directed him to a report on the heist from 2015. Miller, University of Arizona, and even the FBI were all quickly contacted, but with no prompt response. The following day, Miller and a university conservator drove the three hours from Tucson to Silver City. They discovered enough evidence to return the painting for additional examination. It was certified as an authentic de Kooning by a conservator.


Brutal Ripping of the Stolen Willem de Kooning Caused Severe Damage

The frame from which “Woman-Ochre” was cut, shown here in a 2015 event to publicize the then 30-year anniversary of the stolen painting, The University of Arizona Museum of Art


“The brutal way in which it was ripped from its lining caused severe paint flaking and tears, not to mention the damage caused by the blade that was used to slice it from its frame,” said the Getty’s senior paintings conservator, Ulrich Birkmaier. The painting underwent a complex restoration process, performed free of charge by the Getty. They used dental tools and tiny amounts of paint to fill small rips and tears and clean the work before installing it back into its original frame.


Woman-Ochre is from the artist’s “Woman” series. It will be publicly exhibited at the Arizona museum from October 8 and will appear in a documentary film, The Thief Collector, which offers further insight into the Alters, and will be screened at Centennial Hall at 7 p.m. on October 6.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.