The day after thanksgiving, 1985, was the last time anyone saw Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre on display at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
The university says when the museum opened that morning a man and woman followed the security guard inside. Investigators believe while the woman made small talk with the guard, the man went upstairs, cut the painting out of its frame, and then came downstairs with it hidden under his jacket. The two walked out and disappeared.
The search to find the couple quickly stalled and some people lost hope they or the painting would ever be found. But not Brian Seastone, who was an officer with the UA Police Department.
“I'm optimistic, I knew it would come back someday,” he said Monday.
How the famous painting came back to the school is something Museum Curator Olivia Miller dreamed about since coming to Tucson five years ago, “It sounds corny but it was a phone call I daydreamed about getting. Someone calling up and saying ‘I think I have your painting.’”
Enter David Van Auker, an antique dealer in Silver City, New Mexico.
He and his partners were combing through furniture in a home that was part of an estate sale -- when he spotted a piece of furniture he liked.
“And as I leaned down to get it, I noticed the painting, so that's when we saw it,” he said.
The Woman-Ochre, a definitive piece by New York painter Willem de Kooning was behind a bedroom door he says displayed in a cheap frame. Not knowing what he had discovered, Van Auker decided to take the painting with him, tossing it into his van and onto a heap of other items from the home.
“I kid you not, the first two hours in the store we had three people, maybe four, come in and every one of them insisted that it was an original de Kooning,” he explained.
Online research convinced him it was real and as he read more articles about the painting stolen from UA, he called the university. It was the call Miller dreamed of getting.
The next day Miller and her team traveled to New Mexico to see the painting and bring it home to Tucson. Worried about the safety of the piece Van Auker had brought it to a friend’s home. When the team from UA arrived, Van Auker’s friend was hosting a barbeque. The home was now full of friends there for a party and a group from Tucson on a mission to recover a stolen painting now valued at roughly $160 million.
“It was the best,” Miller said. “There were so many people who were so genuinely happy about art and it returning to the museum; it was amazing.”
After packing up piece sheriff’s deputies escorted the group back to Tucson where Brian Seastone, the officer who first investigated the crime, was waiting.
“To see the depression and tears on their faces 30 years ago to what we saw last Monday when it came home was just so wonderful,” said Seastone, who is now the Chief of Police at UA.
Now the work begins to restore the painting but who took it and where it was between Tucson and Silver City is the next mystery to solve.