UA recovers stolen painting worth $160M

Posted at 9:16 AM, Aug 11, 2017

Federal authorities and the University of Arizona have recovered a painting worth as much as $160 million stolen from the University in 1985.

UA spokeswoman Pam Scott confirmed the painting's recovery. There is no set date yet for when it'll be on the walls ready for people to see again. 

An art dealer in Silver City, N.M. acquired the painting in an estate sale last week.

"So I told him, please start sending me photo," Museum Curator of Exhibitions and Education Olivia Miller said. "Immediately, he started sending me lots of detailed images, and I just kept becoming more and more convinced that it was the painting."

The painting has been underground since Nov. 29, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving.

Meg Hagyard, the Interim Director, is still processing the fact that they've recovered the painting.

"This work is an important part of the Abstract Expressionism movement, which is the quintessential American art form." she said. "So we are so thrilled that this will be back in our collection."

The painting, by 20th century Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, is "Woman-Ochre," which is part of a six-painting series exploring the female figure. One of the other paintings in the series sold in 2006 for $137.5 million. 

The painting was stolen during a movie-style heist. Here is the UA's description:

At approximately 9 a.m., a security officer opened the front door of the museum to let a staff member into the lobby. Two visitors — a man and a woman — followed inside.

The man wandered up to the second floor while the woman engaged in small talk with a security guard. The man spent a little less than 10 minutes on the second floor, cutting "Woman-Ochre" out of its wood frame with a sharp blade. Leaving remnants of the painting's canvas edges behind, the man slipped the painting under a garment, walked back down the stairs and reunited with his partner.

The two hurried out of the museum, hopped into a rust-colored sports car and never returned. The heist took no more than 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, the guard, suspicious only because of the hasty nature of the visitors' exit, walked up the stairs to find the empty frame. He ran downstairs, but it was too late. The visitors — described as a woman in her mid-50s with shoulder-length reddish-blond hair, wearing tan bell-bottom slacks, a scarf on her head and a red coat, and a man with olive-colored skin, wearing a blue coat — were gone.

Despite the painting's monetary value, Hagyard and Miller say the real importance lies within the educational and cultural value of the painting. 

While the mystery isn't completely solved, Hagyard explained there's a feeling of closure, knowing the painting is back where it belongs. Miller says it's in law enforcement's hands to find the people who stole it, and in the museum's hands to get it back on display.

"UAPD and the FBI are certainly going to do what they need to do," Miller said. "But right now our foremost concern is to work on the conservation of the artwork and get it back on display."

The UA will hold a press conference Monday where they'll release more information.