Art Lover Returns $100M Willem de Kooning Piece

willem de kooning
“Woman-Ochre,” a painting by Willem de Kooning, is readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz., in August 2017. After the painting was stolen in 1985 from an Arizona museum, staff clung to the hope that it would turn up one day. The oil painting is finally back home and ready to be shown. It will be the centerpiece of an exhibition opening Oct. 8, 2022, until May 2023 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP, File

Nearly four decades after a $160 million painting by East Hampton abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning was brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum, it was finally returned in an epic act of kindness.

A couple had stolen a 1955 oil painting Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, cutting it out of the frame from the gallery where it was being exhibited, rolling it up, and walking out with it on the day after Thanksgiving 1985. Another couple unwittingly purchased the stolen painting at a New Mexico estate sale in 2017 and hung it in their antique store, where multiple customers commented that it looked like a real de Kooning, which prompted some research that revealed that the work was the subject of an unsolved heist. 

“I sat up all night with three guns and the painting behind a sofa,” David Van Auker, who immediately contacted the museum and the FBI upon making the discovery, told the Associated Press. “I thought somebody would end up coming and killing us for this painting.”

He even left a voicemail for Olivia Miller, the museum’s interim director, making it clear that he was not interested in any reward or taking advantage of the situation. Miller found the voicemail endearing and wants to include it in an exhibition set to debut in October.

“My favorite part was he says something along the lines of ‘Put this on record. I want you to have the painting back. If it’s yours, the university’s — just come and get the painting,’” she said, chuckling.

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

The estate the painting came from belonged to Jerry Alter, a retired New York City schoolteacher, and his wife Rita Alter, a retired speech pathologist. The artwork had been hanging behind a bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo that showed the couple had been in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities never publicly called them suspects.

Van Auker reports that his store’s business has doubled or tripled at times because people were touched by the actions of him and his business partners, who have been hailed as heroes.

The whole ordeal of the theft and its return in 2017 will be chronicled in a show at the University of Arizona Art Museum opening Oct. 8. It has spent the past two years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for restoration work and display. The painting will be in the same spot it was stolen from — but under a case.

“That’s one of many security layers that it will have,” Miller said.