University of Arizona Museum of Art

It’s been a long journey for a painting stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art 37 years ago. But Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” is finally home for good. 

The painting, which captured international attention following its shocking 1985 theft and its recovery more than three decades later, arrived on campus via 18-wheeler with a Homeland Security escort on the night of Sept 14. The truck had traveled 500 miles from the renowned J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the painting was displayed over the summer following a complex restoration by Getty conservators to repair damage sustained due to the theft.

“Woman-Ochre” will go on exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art on Oct. 8.

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Stolen painting returns home to UAMA

Olivia Miller, interim director and exhibitions curator at UAMA, was among a small group of university staff and law enforcement officials gathered when the painting arrived on campus after dark. 

“Seeing it come back was this moment of relief and peace of mind that yes, this painting has come home,” she said. 

“It’s not just us at the museum who are excited about it,” she added. “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 are no words for it.” 

Brazen theft stumped authorities for years

The stranger-than-fiction story of the theft of “Woman-Ochre” began the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, when a man and woman entered UAMA just as it opened for the day.

While the woman made small talk with museum staff, her partner disappeared to an upstairs gallery where one of the works on display was “Woman-Ochre” – an oil painting completed in 1955 by Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and donated to the university in 1958. The man cut the painting from its frame, rolled it up and walked out the door with it.

By the time a security guard noticed the painting was missing, it was too late. The pair was gone.

For years, the FBI had little to go on besides a rough sketch of the suspects and a description of a rust-colored sportscar leaving the scene.

It wasn’t until 2017 that there was a break in the case. That’s when a trio of antique dealers in Silver City, New Mexico, made a surprising discovery.

Stolen painting returns home
Albert Chamillard, exhibit specialist at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, examines Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” for the first time after lifting the painting from its crate on Sept. 19, 2022. The artwork, which was stolen from the museum in 1985 and recovered in 2017, made its way back to campus this month from the Getty Museum, where it underwent a complex restoration. Chris Richards/University of Arizona

“Woman-Ochre” gets its happily ever after

The return of “Woman-Ochre” to campus marks the final chapter in a long saga, but also the start of a new story.

Having the painting back at the university means a whole new generation of students and scholars will get to view and study the piece.

“The recovery, restoration, and return of ‘Woman-Ochre’ opens up exciting intellectual pathways for students and faculty in the visual arts and beyond, including the ‘afterlife’ of works of art, the long history and relationship between art and crime, and the scientific study of artistic materials and techniques,” said Andy Schulz, UArizona vice president for the arts and dean of the College of Fine Arts. “And, of course, it is a key work in the history of mid-century American modernism and a cornerstone of the UAMA’s strong collection in this area.  I look forward to seeing and supporting the rich and varied scholarship and research that will be catalyzed by this important work.”

The painting’s fame is also likely to draw new visitors to the museum, which houses works by other prominent artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. 

“‘Woman-Ochre’ was found shortly after I came to the University of Arizona, and I have been following the remarkable story with interest ever since,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. “It is such a triumph to see this crown jewel of our art collection finally coming home to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which is part of what makes our campus a true arts destination. I am glad the painting’s return will bring even more patrons and appreciation to this incredible facility.”

As for who stole the painting, the identity of the thieves is not officially known. However, suspicion has fallen largely on Jerry and Rita Alter, who owned the home where the painting was found.

A documentary film called “The Thief Collector” delves more into the Alters, a pair of New York City schoolteachers who retired in New Mexico. The film will be screened on campus at Centennial Hall on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

Van Aucker and his business partners – the unlikely heroes in the story of “Woman-Ochre” – will attend the film screening, as well as a news conference and opening reception for the exhibit. Museum staffers have grown close to the three men, frequently exchanging text messages about not only the painting but everyday life. 

Miller and her museum colleagues recognize that the story of the stolen painting could have ended much differently had the prized piece been discovered by someone else.

“We feel like the luckiest people in the world that the painting fell into their hands,” Miller said, “and that we got the privilege of getting to know them and becoming friends with them.”

Originally published on the UA News website by University Communications on Sept. 27, 2022. The article featured here includes excerpts. Read the complete story here.