FOUND > Estate Sale Painting Worth $160 Million

Hidden behind a door, buyer paid $2,000

Willem de Kooning's painting, 'WomanOchre.'
m December 8, 2017
By Ruthie Bowles, Contributing Author for What Sells Best

CLIFF, NEW MEXICO (VIDEO) – WFAA, an ABC News affiliate, reports a stolen Willem de Kooning painting was found hanging on a wall behind a door in a deceased couple’s home. Someone stole the rare painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art over 30 years ago (UAMA). Experts estimate its value to be $160 million.


Investigators are still baffled by the painting’s theft, which took place more than 30 years ago, based on WFAA reporting. The mystery surrounds the Willem de Kooning painting called “Woman - Ochre”. The beautiful oil on canvas hung on the university’s walls for 20 years before thieves stole it in 1985.

The spirit of the art world celebrated when Willem de Kooning was born in 1904. Born in the Netherlands, he came to America as a stowaway, and made port in Virginia. Later in his life, he traveled to New York, and it was there he found his home.

According to The Art Story, experts label de Kooning as one of the most influential Abstract Expressionist painters. Surrealism, Expressionism, and Picasso’s Cubism heavily influenced his work. He is known for “action painting”, which means that the piece itself feels like it is still in motion based on a variety of techniques and characteristics.

A couple wiled their way into the museum prior to operational hours. While the woman captured the security guard’s attention, the man snuck to the upper floor and sliced the painting from its frame.

Investigators speculate that one of the thieves rolled up the masterpiece and tucked it under their coat. There is no way to know for sure, as the security procedures at the time did not include cameras. The UAMA interim director, Meg Hagyard revealed to WFAA “It was a very traumatic event for the institution and the people who lived through it.”


The painting hung behind the bedroom door of Rita and Jerome “Jerry” Alter for an unknown amount of time. Ron Roseman, their nephew, sold their art collection to an antiques dealer for $2,000 while executing their estate following their deaths.

Manzanita Ridge Antiques is located in Silver City, New Mexico. Their customers started inquiring about the oil on canvas piece almost as soon as it was displayed. After a few customers asked about it, one of the shop’s co-owners, David Van Auker, feared for the painting’s well-being, and removed it from its display in the store.

After reading a USA today article about the theft of a painting that looked very similar to the one in his possession, Van Auker called the UAMA. The university sent a team within 36 hours, and Olivia Miller, a museum curator, said that the painting had been kept in a home for safekeeping.

The FBI is currently investigating the mysterious theft, so authorities did not offer any comment on any leads or evidence they are currently running down. Speculation flies nonetheless, with the shop’s other owner, Buck Burns, divulging that he believes the Alters were involved in the heist.

“My personal thought, and it may be totally wrong, but when I first saw where the painting was hanging in the house, it was for their private display,” Burns told WFAA. “Not for everybody else. It was hung behind that door and when that door was open nobody could see it.”

Rosemand offered an opposing statement to WFAA, saying that he doesn’t think his aunt and uncle were involved in the theft. “I just can’t imagine that they would,” Roseman told WFAA. “That wasn’t the aunt and uncle that I knew.”

Of course, if the Alters were not involved in the painting’s theft, that leaves the question, how did it come into their possession? And so the mystery deepens….


Considering the variety of rare paintings found recently, this one is incredibly exciting. If you think you discovered a valuable piece of art in a closet, attic, or anywhere else, you should contact the experts on our free appraisals page.


High-end collectors seek out Willem de Kooning paintings with fervor. As a result, they are rarely seen outside of the most prestigious galleries and auction houses.


Plans for the painting have yet to be disclosed.