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Vinita Pappas

For the Painter #58: a mystery

published2 months ago
1 min read

Hi Reader,

This week in For the Painter #58...

I love a good art theft mystery, especially one with a happy ending.

Willem de Kooning's painting "Woman-Ochre" is a survivor. You could say she's been to hell and back and has the scars to prove it, but she will proudly go on display next month at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, making a return after 37 years.

In 2017, David Van Auker, a small-town antique dealer in New Mexico, received a call from a man in Houston. The man was settling the estate of his aunt and uncle. He wanted to clear out the belongings, and put the home on the market. The house was in Cliff, New Mexico, a small town with a population of about 300.

Van Auker doesn't normally purchase whole estates but the midcentury furniture was of interest to him. After agreeing on a price for the contents of the home, the antique dealer and his partners got the key from a local realtor. They loaded up furniture and a few items, including a painting they thought was a badly damaged print or copy of a de Kooning. Back at the shop, one of their customers immediately noticed the painting and offered to buy it for a large sum. That's when the internet search started. Could this possibly be a real de Kooning?!

Two days after collecting the painting from the house in Cliff, Van Auker was on the phone with staff from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. "Woman-Ochre" was stolen from this museum 35 years prior, and until that day, no clues had surfaced about the location. The museum staff made the trip, bringing with them the original frame with the perimeter of the cut canvas. The edges lined up perfectly, and soon experts verified, this was the real deal.

The painting has been undergoing extensive repairs at J. Paul Getty Museum for the past several years. The artwork was ripped from a supporting canvas during the theft in 1985, causing significant damage. Now, a little worse for wear but looking pretty darn good, "Woman-Ochre" is back home.

Who stole this painting? And why was it found in a house in a small New Mexico town?

Watch these videos to learn more.

$160 million De Kooning painting finally returning to display (6 min)

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Have a great week,

Vinita