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After 30 years, Arizona Museum of Art recovers stolen piece by modern master

| Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, 8:18 p.m.
Willem de Kooning's 'Woman-Ochre' is readied for examination by Nathan Saxton, right, an exhibitions specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, a registrar, in Phoenix.
Willem de Kooning's 'Woman-Ochre' is readied for examination by Nathan Saxton, right, an exhibitions specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, a registrar, in Phoenix.
Dr. Nancy Odegaard, a conservator with the university, leads the authentication process for a recovered Willem de Kooning painting, in Phoenix. More than three decades after thieves made off with the valuable painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, officials have recovered the long sought piece from an antique dealer in New Mexico.
Dr. Nancy Odegaard, a conservator with the university, leads the authentication process for a recovered Willem de Kooning painting, in Phoenix. More than three decades after thieves made off with the valuable painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, officials have recovered the long sought piece from an antique dealer in New Mexico.

PHOENIX — More than three decades after thieves made off with a valuable painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, officials say they have recovered the long sought piece from an antique dealer in New Mexico.

Curators at the museum that was home to Willem de Kooning's “Woman-Ochre” spent years hoping to get it back after two people stole the painting the day after Thanksgiving in 1985.

That dream finally came true when furniture and antique dealer David Van Auker called the museum from Silver City, N.M. Marketing Manager Gina Compitello-Moore said Auker bought the painting at an estate sale and began researching it when he read an article about the heist that depicted an identical looking piece.

“When I got the phone call, this is literally the phone call I've been dreaming of — is somebody calling my phone and saying I think I have your stolen painting and that's what he said,” museum curator Olivia Miller said.

Miller said it really stood out to her when Van Auker mentioned damaging lines across the canvas that made it look as if it had been rolled up. Miller said a former museum curator was in utter disbelief and elated when she told her the painting was recovered.

The oil painting by the Dutch-American abstract expressionist is one in an iconic series by de Kooning that explores the figure of a woman. The piece features de Kooning's signature broad paint strokes, depicting various colors across the female body.

Police have said a man and woman were the sole visitors the day the painting was stolen. They say the woman distracted a security officer by making small-talk while the man cut the painting from the large frame, leaving the edges of the canvas attached.

The FBI said its agents continue to investigate the theft.

Dr. Nancy Odegaard, a conservator with the university, said she used a tool kit, magnifying glass and an ultra violet lamp to meticulously examine the painting. Odegaard looked for verifying marks of damage and repair on the piece consistent with previous conservation reports.

Odegaard said she also compared the lines of cutting on the original and laid the cut portion on top.

“Then we started looking at where the edges would go,” Odegaard said. “For me which was a really dramatic connection — a paint stroke that clearly went across both pieces.” The conservator said the various clues showed it was a perfect match.

The museum also plans to bring in a de Kooning expert to examine the painting for further authentication.

In 2015, the museum displayed the empty wooden frame that once held the painting along with sketches of the suspects to remind visitors of the heist on its 30-year anniversary.

“There are numerous people on staff that have said that the vision of the career highlight was having this painting returned,” Interim Director Meg Hagyard said. “And to actually be here in this moment in time for everybody is really, really emotional and exciting.”

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