Art lover returns $100 million coin to Willem de Kooning

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Almost four decades after a $160 Millions of paintings by East Hampton Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning were brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum, they were finally returned in an epic act of kindness.

A couple stole a 1955 oil painting Woman-Ocher from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, cutting it out of the gallery frame where it was exposed, rolling it up and walking with it the day after Thanksgiving 1985. Another couple unwittingly bought the stolen painting at a 2017 New Mexico estate sale and hung it in their antique store, where several customers said it looked like a true of Kooning, prompting research that found that the work was the subject of an unsolved robbery.

“I sat all night with three guns and the paint behind a sofa,” David Van Auker, who immediately contacted the museum and the FBI after making the discovery, told The Associated Press. “I thought someone would end up coming and killing us for this painting.”

He even left a voicemail for Olivia Miller, the museum’s acting director, stating that he was not interested in any rewards or taking advantage of the situation. Miller found the voicemail endearing and wants to include it in an exhibit that opens in October.

“My favorite part was him saying something like, ‘Put that on the record. I want you to get the painting back. If it’s yours, the one from the university, come get the painting,” she said with a laugh.

His return sparked an FBI investigation. But the case is now considered closed “following a thorough investigation,” said Brooke Brennan, spokeswoman for the FBI office in Phoenix.

The domain from which the painting originated belonged to Jerry Alter, a retired teacher from New York, and his wife Rita Alter, a retired speech therapist. The work hung behind a bedroom door. Relatives also discovered a photo showing the couple were in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have never publicly called them suspects.

Van Auker reports that his store’s business has sometimes doubled or tripled because people have been affected by the actions of him and his business partners, who were hailed as heroes.

The entire ordeal of the flight and its return in 2017 will be chronicled in an exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art that opens October 8. He has spent the last two years at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for restoration and exhibition work. The painting will be in the same place it was stolen – but in a slipcase.

“It’s one of the many layers of security he’ll have,” Miller said.

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