His 'Cool' Find at Estate Sale Was a Stolen Masterpiece

Painting by de Kooning is returned to University of Arizona 31 years after heist
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 11, 2017 1:05 PM CDT
This undated image provided by University of Arizona Museum of Art shows an oil canvas by artist Willem De Kooning, titled: "Woman-Ochre," 1954-55, a Gift of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr.   (University of Arizona Museum of Art via AP)

(Newser) – "I just thought it was a cool painting," David Van Auker tells the Arizona Republic. He has good taste. It turns out the painting—which he purchased at a New Mexico estate sale—is a Willem de Kooning that was stolen 31 years ago from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson and could be worth an eye-popping sum. Van Auker planned to sell much of the estate's art in his Silver City antiques shop, but the 30- by 40-inch canvas he intended to put in his guest house. As it temporarily sat in his store, customers started asking him if it was a "real" de Kooning. A web search tipped him off to the unsolved 1985 heist of "Women-Ochre," part of the "Women" series de Kooning painted in the early 1950s. Another painting from the series sold for $137.5 million—a decade ago.

On the advice of the FBI, Van Auker gave the painting to a friend for safekeeping. A team from the university traveled to New Mexico to evaluate it and bring it home, reports the Arizona Daily Star; they say their preliminary authentication has established that it is indeed "Women-Ochre." It was stolen from the museum the day after Thanksgiving; just after opening, a woman (perhaps a man in disguise) chatted up a guard while a male accomplice cut the painting from its frame in a second-floor gallery. There were no fingerprints or security images for police to go on. Van Auker tells the Republic he did observe "swoops" and cracks in the canvas that may be the result of it being cut and rolled. A restoration is underway. No word yet on when it will be put on public view, nor have additional details regarding the estate that had the painting been given. (Read more art heist stories.)

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