The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by UA Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, and Kristen Schmidt, Registrar. Photo: UANews
An iconic painting snatched from an Arizona museum more than 30 years ago was discovered in the bedroom of a quiet New Mexico couple following their deaths — bringing authorities ever closer to solving the decades-long mystery.
Willem de Kooning’s iconic “Woman-Ochre” painting vanished from the University of Arizona Museum of Art on Thanksgiving day in 1985. Brian Seastone, who’d been lead investigator on the case said a man and a woman walked into the building and stole the piece in broad daylight.
“Apparently they had some kind of X-acto knife, cut it out completely,” he told KOB4, noting that because there was no surveillance at the time, investigators were forced to rely solely on witness accounts.
The University Arizona police Department put out a sketch of the getaway car and suspect descriptions, but the painting remained missing until 2017, when David Van Aucker, the owner of a New Mexico antique store called Manzanita Ridge, phoned both experts and the FBI to tell them he was in possession of the stolen piece.
Earlier that summer, Van Aucker received a call from the nephew of Jerry and Rita Atler, who passed away in 2012 and 2017 respectively. Their relative reluctantly purchased their estate, but hoped to sell all of the belongings that remained in their home, according to the news station.
In this 2015 photo, an empty wooden frame sits next to a composite drawing of two suspects in the heist of a valuable painting stolen 30 years ago from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Photo: AP
Van Aucker traveled to the estate sale in cliff and discovered what he believed was a “poorly framed study" in the bedroom of the home. He purchased the painting — now valued between $100 and $160 million — for $2,000 and set it up in his shop.
De Kooning, who died in 1997, was one of the most well-known painters of the mid-century abstract expressionist movement. Woman III, a work part of the same series as, Woman-Ochre sold for $135.million in 2006.
Van Aucker said he had the famous piece displayed less than an hour “before the first person came in and walked up to it and looked at it and said, ‘I think this is a real de Kooning.”
The shop owner initially brushed it off, but more and more people came in making the exact same comment.
“I looked on the computer to see if we had a real de Kooning and that’s when we found the article,” Van Aucker said. “And then it went from, ‘Yay, we have a real de Kooning’ to ‘Oh my God, we have a stolen de Kooning.”
While many clues point to the Atlers, authorities are still investigating who was behind the 30-year-old art heist. Several people previously told the New York Times the couple had a red sports car, similar to the one spotted leaving the museum on after Thanksgiving day so many years ago. And photos of the couple see Rita sporting a red jacket, not unlike the one worn by the female art thief.
“In the Atlers’ day planner from 1985, they took meticulous notes about what they ate, where they went, and the medications they had,” KOB 4 noted. “On Thanksgiving 1985, they mysteriously left it blank.”
What’s more, family photos place the couple in Tuscon the night before the painting was stolen. Museum offiicials also told the Arizona Republic the painting only appears to have been re-framed once since it disappeared, indicating that it only had one owner.
“It took us 32 years to get here, and it will take some time before we can be real confident in closing this case,” Seastone said.
The investigation has been underway for a year now. The FBI declined to comment until the case is closed.