Meg Hagyard, interim director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, and Olivia Miller, curator of exhibitions, are thrilled that a valuable painting that was stolen from the museum in 1985 has been recovered. Tom Tingle/

University of Arizona officials hailed as heroes and Good Samaritans the three owners of an antiques store who returned a $100 million painting after it was stolen from the school 31 years ago.

But David Van Auker, who alerted authorities, was having none of that.

He said he’s humble, he’s thrilled, but he’s not a hero.

“We returned something that was stolen, and that’s something everyone should do,” he said. “It absolutely had to come back.”

MORE: Willem de Kooning painting found 31 years after being ripped from UA gallery

Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson own Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, a store they’ve operated for about 15 years in Silver City, New Mexico.

They were honored at a press conference on Monday in Tucson just days after they inadvertently purchased the valuable painting as part of an estate sale.

The oil painting was none other than “Woman-Ochre,” a Willem de Kooning masterpiece that was looted in a daring heist in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.


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Since the UA announced the painting’s recovery last week, university associates who remember the devastating theft firsthand, such as UA Police Chief Brian Seastone, have been smiling nonstop.

“Somebody saw something, they said something, and today she’s home,” said Seastone, who was a young officer assigned to the case three decades ago.

‘Wow, what a horrible frame’

Facing a room full of local and national media on Monday, Van Auker recounted the tense days that led up to the valuable artwork being returned.

Van Auken took an immediate liking to the painting when he spotted it in early August in an estate sale of a ranch-style home about 30 miles outside Silver City. He, Burns and Johnson inspected the contents of the home and decided to buy the lot, which included furniture and African art objects.

Van Auker opened the master bedroom and was struck by an abstract painting of a nude woman just behind the door.

He called Burns in to take a look.

Burns liked the colors and the rich, thick paint strokes. He did not like the cheap, gold frame that encased the painting, however.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, what a horrible frame,’ ” Burns said.

But frames can be changed.

So they decided to take the painting home.

They loaded the painting into a truck on top of some mid-century modern furniture. Back at the store, they took the painting out and propped it against a coffee table. They intended to hang it in their guesthouse.

‘Is that a de Kooning?’


A look at the life of the famed Dutch-born artist, and the mysterious disappearance of a masterpiece. Wochit

The next day, about 15 minutes after opening, a man who had just moved to the community saw the painting and asked, “Is that a de Kooning?”

Two more visitors had similar inquiries.

Burns got nervous; he took the painting and hid it in the store’s bathroom.

Van Auken went online and discovered a 2015 article on about the de Kooning painting that had been stolen from the UA museum without a trace.

READ: Unsolved mystery: de Kooning painting valued at $100M missing for 30 years

The photo online matched the painting he had in the store. He said he got a sinking feeling. He wasn’t sure what to do.

Realizing he probably “sounded like a crazy person,” he called the UA art museum, The Republic reporter who had written the 2015 story and the FBI.

He sent photos and measurements to Olivia Miller, the museum’s curator, and with each photo that arrived, she became more and more excited.

Van Auken took the painting home that night and hid it behind the sofa.

‘We are so grateful’


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The next day, Friday, Aug. 4, the museum curator and a group of museum staff made the 200-mile drive from Tucson to Silver City.

Once they saw the painting in person, there was no doubt.

By the following Monday, Aug. 7, the painting was back at the university. By Wednesday, Aug. 9, a university conservationist said preliminary authentication showed it was “Woman-Ochre.”

On Monday, Aug. 14, the antiques store owners made a trip to the art museum at the university’s invitation for a special ceremony to thank them, and the university unveiled the oil painting to the media.

“I’m so glad she’s back home,” whispered Johnson, before the ceremony began.

UA officials won’t put a price tag on the painting.

But a similar work in de Kooning’s “Woman” series sold for $137.5 million a decade ago. The university can’t sell its de Kooning, though, because of a stipulation by the donor, architect and businessman Edward Gallagher Jr.

Once restored, the painting will be on display for generations to come.

“We all felt its loss, and we all wanted it recovered,” said Miller, the museum’s curator.

“We are so grateful — to David, to Buck, to Rick.”


The Republic’s Willem de Kooning obituary from 1997

De Kooning painting fetches $66.3M in New York

Auction delayed for Jackson Pollock painting found in Sun City

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