A masterpiece by painter Willem de Kooning that was stolen in a famous museum heist three decades ago has finally been found — at an antique store 200 miles away.
Willem de Kooning’s Woman — Ochre
The store’s owner, David Van Auker, unwittingly picked up “Woman-Ochre” in an estate sale on Aug. 1 but had no idea he’d found a $160 million piece of art until a customer saw it in his store and asked if it was a de Kooning.
When he googled the renowned expressionist artist, he was stunned to learn that not only did he appear to have one of de Kooning’s works at his Silver City, NM, emporium — it seemed to be one looted from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson in 1985.
“We held the painting up next to a computer screen and started comparing drips and splatters, and everything seemed to match. From that moment on, we knew we had it. I knew it in my heart,” Van Auker, 54, told The Post on Friday.
“Woman-Ochre,” painted in 1954-55, was swiped in a brazen caper on the morning after Thanksgiving 1985. A man walked straight into the museum just after it opened and used a blade to slice the museum’s most prized work out of its frame while a female accomplice distracted a guard.
Within 15 minutes, the two bandits had walked out of the gallery’s doors with the work rolled up under the man’s jacket before anyone noticed it was missing.
After Van Auker recently read the incredible story, he notified the university and the FBI, who quickly set about authenticating that it was, indeed, the work they’d spent the last 31 years searching for.
When the museum’s staff finally came to pick it up from his store, the room was “electric,” Van Auker said. “You could feel it. I was choked up,” he said. “They brought the [original] frame with them. It was so emotional when they uncrated the frame. Everyone was laughing and hugging.”
The painting is part of a series of six. Another work in the series sold for $137 million a decade ago, and the museum estimates “Woman-Ochre” is now worth at least $160 million, according to an NPR report. Van Auker says he didn’t want a cent for it, however.
“We just wanted to right a wrong,” he said.
The thieves were never found, and it’s unknown how the work ended up in New Mexico.