PHOENIX (AP) – After a Willem de Kooning painting worth millions was brazenly stolen in 1985 from an Arizona museum, staff clung to hope that it would one day appear. But no one would have expected the Woman-Ocher to find her way back through the kindness of strangers in a neighboring country.
“I kind of imagine what that looked like,” said Olivia Miller, interim director and curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. “Will it show up as a mysterious package in the mail or something?… I certainly never thought I’d be friends with that.”
The 1955 oil painting by the Dutch American Abstract Expressionist is finally back home and ready for display. will be the focus of all Exhibition Opening October 8 through May at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The whole ordeal of theft Her comeback will be dated in 2017 via New Mexico on the show. She has spent the past two years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for restoration and display work. The painting will be in the same place it was stolen – but under a case.
“This is one of the many levels of security it will have,” Miller said.
Almost like something out of a heist movie, the heist unfolded the morning after Thanksgiving. A man and a woman showed up at the museum where there were only a security guard and students working at the reception, according to the museum’s curator at the time.
The woman distracted the guard with a short conversation while the man went to an upstairs hallway. Police said he cut the painting straight from the frame. The edges of the board were still attached. The whole robbery lasted 15 minutes. Left with painting wrapped.
There was no surveillance camera system and no leads.
On the 30th anniversary of the robbery in 2015, the museum displayed the blank tire at a press conference in hopes of gaining information.
A break in the case occurred in August 2017 when David Van Oecker, his partner Buck Burns, and their friend Rick Johnson purchased the painting along with other items at a property sale in Cleve, New Mexico. The trio owns Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antiques store 40 miles (64 kilometers) away in Silver City. When they brought him back to the store, three different customers noticed how real De Kooning looked.
It piqued his interest, and Van Oecker did a Google search. This led him to publish a 2015 article on theft. He said they immediately tried to contact Miller, the University of Arizona and even the FBI. But no one returned to them immediately.
Van Oecker became terrified about protecting what could be the actual painting that was said to be worth $100 million.
“I sat all night with three guns and the board behind the sofa,” he recalls. “I thought someone was going to end up killing us for this painting.”
He even left a voicemail to Miller stating that he was not interested in any reward or benefit from the situation. Miller found the voicemail to be endearing and wanted to include it in the show.
“My favorite part is that it says something along the lines of ‘Record this. I want you to get the painting back. If it’s yours, then the university – come and get the plate, ”she said, laughing.
Miller and a restoration specialist at the university made the three-hour drive from Tucson to Silver City the next day. They found that there were sufficient indications to recover the painting for further verification. One conservative de Kooning considered it real.
Her return sparked an FBI investigation. Brooke Brennan, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Phoenix office, said the case is now considered closed “after a thorough investigation.”
The estate the painting came from was owned by Jerry and Rita Alter. Artwork was hanging behind the bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo showing the couple were in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have not publicly named the suspects.
Miller met earlier this year with the couple’s nephew. When the story first came out, he didn’t think they could have committed such a crime.
“Now that the shock has worn off for him, he can now see that they could have been the ones who stole the painting,” Miller said.
Van Oecker sometimes imagines if the painting had fallen into different hands in New Mexico. The thrill of playing a part in his comeback never fades.
He certainly wouldn’t exchange the past five years’ experiences with any money. His shop activity doubled or tripled at times because people were affected by their actions. He, Burns, and Johnson were hailed as heroes at events in Tucson and the Getty Museum. They made friends with Miller and the rest of the museum staff, and even hosted them at the guest house in Silver City.
It’s no surprise considering what Van Oecker said to Miller when she left with the painting back in 2017.
“I said to Olivia ‘we are tied up in life now.’” She turned towards me and said “Yeah, I know that.”
Follow Terry Tang on Twitter at @ttangAP.