“Woman-Ochre,” a painting by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, has been returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Let’s imagine for a second that you are an antiques dealer. You get calls all the time about liquidating estates and you were just on one of those calls. You see some average stuff but you also see a wrinkled old canvas behind a closet door that you think looks pretty cool. It has some nice colors and an interesting abstract composition. It kind of looks like the owner of the estate must have been a painter and, he wasn’t half bad. So you say “What the heck,” and put $2000 into the investment and maybe you’ll make a little profit from some of the baubles and trinkets you just bought but you’ll get a cool painting in the deal— and isn’t that what it’s all about? So you go to your shop, unload your truck, put the wrinkled canvas into a corner and hope some people come in to check out your stuff. A few people do come in and when you show them the canvas, more than one casually mentions that the painting looks an awful lot like a Willem de Kooning.

The idea of it seems cool enough but, really guys, c’mon. You continue about your day, dusting off your books and leather bound chairs when something really strange happens. One of your customers comes back a few hours later and, with a serious look on his face, offers you $200,000 for the wrinkled canvas. He can get the cash by the end of the day. Now you’re wondering. So you go online, find an article about a Willem de Kooning that way, way back in 1985 was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art and holy Ravioli!, it looks exactly like the one you just bought. And not just that! Its estimated value is, oh, about $100,000,000. Yeah, thats right. EIGHT zeros!

A tingle goes down your spine.

You can hear the distant sound of cars on the street outside. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and there you are, all alone, with a painting you just discovered is absolutely worth $100 million and is also absolutely stolen. Maybe you start to wonder how many people know you have it? Who did you tell? Where can you go to disappear so no one will ever trace the sale of a stolen painting back to you?” And then you stop yourself and vigorously shake your head. You have a stolen Willem de Kooning painting worth $100,000,000 and you know that the only right thing to do is give it back.

In 1985, a man and a woman, on a cool winter day in Arizona, strolled into the University of Arizona Museum of Art and, while the attractive middle-aged lady chatted up the security guard, her younger male partner went to the Museum’s second floor, sliced a Willem de Kooning painting out of it’s frame, rejoined his partner and they departed. The painting was missing for 31 years.

Just two weeks ago,“Woman-Ochre,” by Willem de Kooning was returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art by an antiques dealer from New Mexico who happened upon it at an estate sale.

If you enjoy abstract paintings like our honest antiques dealer, then check out our gallery.

For a more factual account of this story, go here.