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Crime Trackers: New details released on stolen art from UA Museum of Art

TUCSON – A priceless piece of art that was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art has been found after being lost for more than 30 years.

Willem De Kooning’s Woman Ochre went missing in 1985 and was returned in 2017. However, the question still stands, who stole it and where has it been all of this time?

Two years after it was returned, there may be an answer to these questions.

The painting was donated to the University of Arizona in 1958 by Edward Gallagher Jr. It was proudly displayed at the school and numerous museums across the world for the next 57 years. In 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, the $400,000 painting was stolen.

“The day of the theft, I saw tears of disappointment, despair and just disbelief,” University of Arizona Police Chief Brian Seastone said.

Witnesses saw two people walk in shortly after the museum opened. There was a security guard posted in the museum. When the theft took place, a woman stopped and distracted the guard as her partner cut the painting from the frame.

The suspects’ sketches provided dead-end leads. Witnesses said they saw a rusted-colored sports car take off in front of the museum, but the car was never tracked down.

Despite this, police said they were confident the painting would eventually turn up.

“I always had in the back of my mind that that painting was going to come back,” Seastone said.

Three and a half hours from Tucson, the owners of an antique shop in Silver City, N.M. went to look at the estate of Rita and Jerry Alter, who had recently passed away.

“I was down on my knees picking up a piece of furniture. When I looked up, one of the first things I saw was the De Kooning signature,” David Van Auker, owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques said. “My first thought was that it was a print.”

Auker said the painting was spotted hanging behind the bedroom door. He paid $200 for the art and loaded it up with the rest of the furniture and paintings from the home. Once the painting was in his shop, a customer recognized the work.

“He was the very first one who was absolutely was sure it was an authentic De Kooning,” Auker said.

Afterward, other customers began to say the same. One person even offered them $200,000 for the work and urged them to research it.

“That was kind of the turning point when we decided we needed to lock it away and put it in the bathroom and lock the door,” Auker said. “That’s the only room that locked in the store.”

When he began researching, Auker found articles on the internet about the painting being stolen. He compared photos and quickly realized he had found the stolen art. He immediately contacted the University of Arizona Museum of Art and told them he had the painting. He also contacted the FBI.

The question is, how did the painting end up with Alters?

The pair was in Tucson for Thanksgiving the day before the theft happened. Also, they owned a “rust” colored sports car like the one witnesses said they saw leaving the museum. There was also a picture of Rita standing next to her wearing the exact same red coat that’s in the description of the people who stole the painting.

Despite these factors, Seastone says it is still an active investigation that’s being handled by the FBI.

“We won’t comment on that, but yeah, there’s a lot of theories out there and there’s a lot of coincidences,” Seastone said.

Regardless of who took the painting, police are happy it’s finally been returned.

“On the day it was brought back, there were no longer tears of disappointment and despair, but tears of happiness and joy,” Seastone said.

The painting is now at the Getty in Los Angeles where it is being restored. Museum staff said they hope to display it on the day after Thanksgiving 2020.

EDITOR’S NOTE: News 4 Tucson’s Sascha Fruehauf contribute to this article.


Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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