“We are thrilled that the Getty generously agreed to partner with the University of Arizona and take on the complex conservation work that our de Kooning so desperately needed,” said Andrew Schulz, vice president for the arts at the University of Arizona. “Woman-Ochre is a crown jewel in the collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, and we can’t wait to have it back in our galleries this fall. In the meantime, we very much look forward to the upcoming exhibition at the Getty and the opportunity to share this extraordinary work—and its equally extraordinary story—with a broad audience.”
After Getty’s exhibition, the painting will return to the University of Arizona in fall 2022. The conservation of Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre was generously supported by the Getty Museum’s Paintings Council and the Getty Conservation Institute Council.
A feature documentary about the infamous theft, “The Thief Collector,” will be released in 2022. The XTR film is directed by Allison Otto and produced by Caryn Capotosto, Jill Howerton, and Joshua Kunau.
Willem de Kooning was born in the Netherlands and moved to New York in 1926. He was one of the pioneers and leaders of the abstract expressionist movement, which began in New York after World War II. In 1950, de Kooning began his best-known body of work, his Woman series, which included Woman-Ochre, completed in 1954–1955. The series is considered monumental in the way that it imagines the human figure.
Woman-Ochre was gifted to the UAMA in 1958 by donor Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr. The painting was regularly exhibited at UAMA and loaned to several important exhibitions on de Kooning and related artists at major museums around the world.
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a man and a woman followed a staff member inside the UAMA as soon as the museum opened at approximately 9am. The woman distracted a security guard while the man went upstairs and cut Woman-Ochre from its frame with a sharp blade, ripping the canvas off its backing and rolling it up to conceal it. The two hurried out of the museum and never returned. They had been inside less than 15 minutes.
In 2015, knowing that stolen art often surfaces when thieves die, the UAMA worked in coordination with the FBI to publicize the 30th anniversary of the theft. This resulted in widespread news coverage of the missing painting and proved to be a key factor in its recovery.
In August 2017, David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson purchased the painting, along with furniture and other art, from the estate of a deceased couple in Cliff, New Mexico. They took the items to their store—Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques—in nearby Silver City, and displayed the work, unaware of its origins. Several customers commented on the painting’s authenticity, prompting Van Auker to research his purchase and connect it with the heist. He immediately called the UAMA and secured the painting. UAMA staffers traveled to New Mexico to retrieve the picture and brought it back to Tucson. At the museum, conservators were able to examine the painting carefully, matching it to the remnants of the cut canvas they had preserved after the robbery, and confirming that it was in fact Woman-Ochre.