University of Arizona Museum of Art

On a routine Thursday afternoon at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, staffers were preparing for next season’s exhibitions when the phone rang.

A student receptionist answered. The man on the other end of the line said, “I think I have a painting of yours.”

“Which one?” asked the student.

“The de Kooning,” the man responded.

“Hold, please.”

The receptionist asked UAMA security officer Jim Kushner what to do about the man on the phone. Transfer him to museum curator Olivia Miller’s office, Kushner said. Meanwhile, Miller and UAMA archivist Jill McCleary had overheard the exchange via walkie-talkie.

McCleary turned to Miller and asked, “Olivia, are we going to remember this moment for the rest of our lives?”

Miller’s phone rang. She picked up.

A Theft and an Estate Sale

On Nov. 29, 1985, a Willem de Kooning painting, Woman-Ochre,” was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Decades later, on Aug. 1, 2017, David Van Auker was wandering through a home, snapping photos of bedroom sets and pottery, having been called to the place by a man handling a family member’s estate. Van Auker, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, was there with business partners Richard Dean Johnson Jr. and Buck Burns. Because of his line of work, Van Auker and his partners get these calls fairly often.

As Van Auker walked into a bedroom, he noticed something hidden behind a door. At first, he thought it was an art print. He looked closer. The canvas was wrinkled. It was a painting.

“I assumed it was a painting either by the people who lived there, or maybe a study they had done,” Van Auker says. “But I really liked it, so I called in Buck and said, ‘Hey Buck, come in here and look at this painting.'” Burns, a firefighter, actor in local theater and Van Auker’s life partner, liked the painting, too.

“Woman-Ochre” in the frame in which it arrived on Aug. 7 from New Mexico 

For $2,000, they bought the estate, including the wrinkled painting. They headed back to Silver City and dropped off the painting at their store that same night.

The next morning, the first customer to walk into the store touched the painting and commented, “I think that’s a real de Kooning.” Van Auker scoffed, but within hours, four customers had come into the store, each commenting that the painting could be an authentic de Kooning, some returning several times to see it, and, according to Van Auker,  one offering $200,000 for it.

Burns hid the painting while Van Auker took to Google. He scrolled through four pages of search results before clicking on a story by Anne Ryman in The Arizona Republic, headlined “Unsolved Arizona mystery: de Kooning painting valued at $100 million missing for 30 years.

“I was just skimming. I don’t know why I clicked it. I really couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s because I’m from Arizona,” says Van Auker, a Mesa native who later lived in Globe for 16 years. “But I clicked it and then the photo came up. I was dazed. ‘Is that our painting? It can’t be.'”

The article told of the audacious theft of “Woman-Ochre,” which looked strikingly like the very painting sitting in Van Auker’s store.

de Kooning image of Woman-Ochre
Nathan Saxton and Kristen Schmidt of UAMA place “Woman-Ochre” on a table for examination. Photo by Bob Demers.
Stolen Woman-Ochre
UAMA staffers look at the back of “Woman-Ochre” during its preliminary authentication at the museum. Photo by Bob Demers.
Nancy Odegaard uses a brush to remove dust from “Woman-Ochre.” Odegaard is a world-renowned conservator who works at the Arizona State Museum on the UA campus. Photo by Bob Demers
The examination of “Woman-Ochre” involved the inspection of the canvas for structural weaknesses. Photo by Bob Demers.
Nancy Odegaard: “When I came to that paint stroke that continued across both pieces, I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. This is it. It’s a match.'” Photo by Bob Demers.
A sticker on the backside of “Woman-Ochre” left over from the Smithsonian Institution revealed the name of a 1969 exhibition: “THE DISAPPEARANCE AND REAPPEARANCE OF THE IMAGE.” Photo by Bob Demers.

The Nature of the Theft

The coveted painting was stolen on the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. Given that about 80 percent of U.S. museum thefts reported to the National Stolen Art File are committed internally by staff or those in a position of trust, and that art is most often stolen from storage areas rather than exhibitions, the nature of the theft was truly extraordinary.

At approximately 9 a.m., a security officer opened the front door of the museum to let a staff member into the lobby. Two visitors — a man and a woman — followed inside.

The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman chatted with a security guard. The man spent just under 10 minutes on the second floor, cutting “Woman-Ochre” out of its wood frame with a sharp blade. Leaving remnants of the painting’s canvas edges behind, the man slipped the painting under a garment, walked back down the stairs and reunited with his accomplice. The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes.

With them, the thieves took an essential piece of the UAMA collection.

At the time of the theft, Brian Seastone, now chief of the University of Arizona Police Department, was a public information officer at UAPD.

“Immediately we started getting information as fast as we could. We brought in the FBI that day to help us because we knew the magnitude of this,” says Seastone, who was also the lead investigator on the case. UAPD has worked cooperatively with the FBI ever since.

A Journey to New Mexico Begins

Within five minutes of reading the Republic news story, Van Auker says, he made the call to the museum.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to convey to her that I got the painting in New Mexico and I’m not crazy?'” Van Auker says. “But next thing I know, Olivia is on the phone.” Miller requested that Van Auker send detailed photos of the painting.

“Every picture made us more and more confident,” Miller says.

She and colleagues called Meg Hagyard, the new interim director of UAMA, who asked, “Do we think this is a prank?” They did not. They proceeded to inform UAPD, as well as the FBI agent advising on the case, Meridith Savona.

Miller, McCleary, Hagyard, UAMA curator of community engagement Chelsea Farrar and UAMA senior exhibition specialist Nathan Saxton piled into two cars the next day. As the team drove toward Silver City, Van Auker assured Miller over the phone, “We want to right a wrong. We want the painting to go back to Arizona with you guys.”

A friend of Van Auker’s had agreed to safe-keep “Woman-Ochre” at his home but was hosting a barbecue for out-of-town family when the UAMA team and officers from the Silver City Police Department arrived on the scene. They stepped inside, and into the room where “Woman-Ochre” sat.

“That’s when it really got emotional,” Van Auker says. “It was so electric in the room. I’ve never felt anything like that in my life, ever. Seeing Olivia’s reaction, and seeing the faces of the people from the U of A … It was just pure elation. You had to be there. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

“Olivia was on her knees, teary-eyed, in front of the painting,” Hagyard says.

The team gingerly wrapped it in bubble wrap and Tyvek and took it to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office to be crated and transported back to Tucson.

“What it felt like to me was that ‘Woman-Ochre’ was kidnapped from her home and she was shackled in this ugly frame for 31 years,” Van Auker says. “She was degraded, and now she’s free. I know it’s an object. I know that. But that’s what I truly felt. She was alive to me.

“I missed her terribly, but I knew, from start to finish, we saw her through. Now she was on her way to be safe in the hands of the U of A.”

‘Woman-Ochre’ Is Authenticated

After the painting arrived in Tucson, it was brought inside the vault at UAMA, where it spent two days acclimating to its new environment and waiting to be authenticated.

Nancy Odegaard of the Arizona State Museum, a world-renowned conservator and professor, walked into the vault on Wednesday morning, Aug. 9, bringing with her graduate student Wendy Lindsey and a large bag of examination instruments.

Odegaard and Lindsey spent two hours completing a thorough visual examination of the painting as museum staff, including Miller, McCleary and registrar Kristen Schmidt, looked on in anticipation. As the frame on the painting was removed, Odegaard examined its edges. Both the framing and the staples, she said, were amateurish — clearly done by someone who doesn’t regularly frame artwork. Consistent with the story of “Woman-Ochre.” Major damage — unique to each painting, like a scar — and related conservation treatment documented in reports were observed and confirmed on the painting. Consistent with the story of “Woman-Ochre.” One conservation report stated that an acrylic-based varnish had been applied as a protective coating. McCleary turned out the lights in the vault, and Odegaard held an ultraviolet light over the painting. The varnish fluoresced. Consistent with the story of “Woman-Ochre.”

The evidence was mounting.

The last step in Odegaard’s and Lindsey’s analysis: comparing the color and brushstrokes of the paint and the pattern of the blade cuts on the canvas against what remained. Museum staff held their breath as the painting was lifted and placed atop the remains of the original. The color matched. The cuts lined up seamlessly. “Woman-Ochre has a brushstroke of jet-black paint on the upper left-hand side. When the thieves cut the painting out of its frame, they left behind the end of that stroke. As the two pieces aligned, so too did the brushstroke.

Odegaard smiled widely.

“I was methodically going through the process until then, but when I came to that paint stroke that continued across both pieces, I thought to myself, ‘That’s it. This is it. It’s a match,'” Odegaard says. “For me, this was irrefutable.”

This was indeed the stolen painting. After years spent in a frame unworthy of her, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” was finally home.

Miller, McCleary and Schmidt wept with joy. Someone asked, “Can we clap now? Is that OK?” The vault filled with claps and cheers. Schmidt turned to Odegaard and said, “Thank you so mu—,” unable to finish her statement as more tears welled in her eyes.

The painting rested on the examination table, its backside giving an implausibly perfect nod to the life of “Woman-Ochre”: A sticker left over from the Smithsonian Institution revealed, in a greenish-brown typewriter font, the name of a 1969 exhibition: “THE DISAPPEARANCE AND REAPPEARANCE OF THE IMAGE.”

“Congratulations,” Odegaard said. She and Lindsey left as museum staff celebrated.

Willem de Kooning’s Place at UAMA

The three-decade-long absence of “Woman-Ochre represented both a symbolic and physical hole in UAMA’s collection.

The artist, de Kooning, was one of the pioneers and leaders of abstract expressionism, a movement that began in New York after World War II. It was popularized by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and de Kooning, who began his “Woman series in 1950. The series, heavily influenced by Picasso, is considered monumental in the way it imagines the human figure. In 2006, “Woman III,” another de Kooning painting in the series, sold for $137.5 million.

UAMA houses a significant collection of abstract expressionist works, including Pollock’s “Number 20 and Rothko’s “Green on Blue (Earth-Green and White).” Now, once more, “Woman-Ochre will help tell UAMA’s story of this one-of-a-kind movement in art.

“The thieves actually committed two crimes that day,” says Kimberly Andrews Espy, UA senior vice president for research, whose office oversees UAMA. “First, they stole an important signature painting from the University’s museum collection. They also stole more than 30 years of access from the public and scholars across the world, depriving them of the opportunity to appreciate, learn from and be inspired by a significant artist.”

“This is a monumental moment for the museum,” Hagyard says. “This is an especially poignant moment, as ‘Woman-Ochre was donated by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. as part of one of the largest gifts in the museum’s history. Having both the collection and that gift complete once again is something that we’ve always hoped for.”

Because “Woman-Ochre was not in the care of UAMA for the last three decades, it will undergo evaluation before being put on exhibition.

Celebrating the Return of ‘Woman-Ochre’

For museum staff and the campus community, the return of “Woman-Ochre has been, in turns, unbelievable and deeply emotional.

“It’s a great day for the University of Arizona and great news for the art world and people who care about public art,” UA President Robert C. Robbins says. “I want to acknowledge and thank David Van Auker. He’s the hero who worked so hard to make sure the painting was returned to its rightful home.”

“I got word about the recovery of this painting in the middle of the night, while I was overseas on a courier trip,” Schmidt says. “The next day it felt like only a dream, and it still feels like a dream. I’ve always said that if we ever recovered the de Kooning, it would be the highlight of my career. And now it’s happened.”

“I was always very optimistic that one day we would find the painting, but it’s hard to describe the emotion of it coming home,” Seastone says. “There’s this sense of relief and happiness. It’s a sense of calm. It’s back, it’s home, it’s where it should be. We know the art is worth an awful lot of money, but the story behind it is priceless.”

“We owe David (Van Auker) a tremendous debt of gratitude for being a good citizen and wanting ‘Woman-Ochre to be returned to the people of Arizona,” Hagyard says.

“This case, like many others, was resolved by somebody that saw something that didn’t make sense to him, so he said something about it,” Seastone says. “Sometimes it’s a lot of luck and the help of the community that makes things happen — and that’s exactly what happened with this case.”

“This was one of the most important moments in my life,” Van Auker says. “I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of it. I’m forever bound to that painting, and to the U of A.”