“Woman-Ochre” de Kooning’s painting from theft to its return home

It was a heist that was as brazen because it was easy.

On the morning of Nov. 29, 1985, a pair entered The University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona. Within minutes, “Woman-Ochre” — a painting by the Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning — was gone.

The museum’s curator Olivia Miller described the theft in a podcast interview on The J. Paul Getty Museum’s web site:

“The building was just starting to open up for the day. There was a man and woman sitting outside in the courtyard, and a staff member entered the building, and they came in behind them.

The security guards are not yet all taken their positions in the building. The man proceeded upstairs to the second floor, and the security guard began upstairs to go take her position up there. But the woman stopped her to talk to her about the painting that hangs in the stairwell. We now know that that was clearly a method to distract her and prevent her from going upstairs.

About five to 10 minutes later, the man came back down and the couple left the museum. The security guard continued upstairs, walked through the galleries and that’s when she realized that ‘Woman-Ochre’ had been cut from its frame.”

The body from which “Woman-Ochre” was lower, proven right here in a 2015 occasion to publicize the then 30-year anniversary of the stolen painting.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art

The thieves left no fingerprints, and the museum did not have a digital camera system on the time, Miller informed CNBC.  

The painting would stay lacking for 32 years.

The painting resurfaces

In 2017, David Van Auker, the co-owner of a furnishings and antiques retailer in Silver City, New Mexico, paid $2,000 for a group of things an property sale at a home in a small city exterior of town.

The home belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter, each former public college workers. Jerry was a “Sunday painter” — or hobbyist — and the couple have been recognized to be adventurous (“they traveled to like 120 countries”), stated Miller.   

Police sketches of the couple behind the theft of “Woman-Ochre.”

The University of Arizona Museum of Art

Among Van Auker’s buy was a painting that hung behind the couple’s bed room door, he informed CNBC.

Van Auker put the painting in his retailer, the place clients instantly began to ask about it, he stated. But it wasn’t till a buyer supplied $200,000 for it that he and his co-owners determined to examine, he stated.

“The customer thought it might be worth far more and wanted to pay us fairly for it,” Van Auker informed CNBC. “We searched Google [and] … found an article about the theft.”

A second to keep in mind

Miller was speaking to a colleague in her workplace when she heard a wierd dialog over the museum’s safety radio. A safety guard stated there was a person on the cellphone who claimed to have the museum’s stolen painting.  

“My coworker and I just stopped our conversation and looked at each other,” stated Miller. “She said, ‘Are we going to remember this moment for the rest of our lives?'”

Still, Miller stated the second wasn’t considered one of “instant excitement.” She stated that whereas the person on the cellphone — which turned out to be Van Auker — sounded very real, she was involved he may have a copy of some variety. So she requested him for images, she stated.

“Every time he sent a photo, we were getting more and more excited,” she stated. “He said that the painting had lines across it as if it had been rolled up.”

Another confirmed the perimeters of the painting, which have been uneven and “corresponded to the edges that we had that remained behind.”

That’s when the FBI obtained concerned, instructing Van Auker to rapidly take away it from his retailer, stated Miller. She stated he saved it at a pal’s home till the museum may decide it up.

Badly broken

Once the museum took possession of the painting, Miller stated, the search was on to discover a conservator with the experience required to restore it. In what Miller referred to as the “the absolute best scenario,” the Getty, which has its personal conservation institute, agreed to settle for it.

When the painting was returned, it was in “very poor condition,” stated Laura Rivers, affiliate work conservator for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Bob Demers, University of Arizona Artwork | © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When the painting arrived on the Getty, it was in “very poor condition,” stated Laura Rivers, affiliate work conservator for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

It had horizontal cracking throughout the floor, and microscopic fragments of paint have been scattered throughout the floor, caught between an early layer of varnish and a second layer utilized after the theft, she stated.

Plus, the face of the painting had been stapled onto a brand new strainer, or picket help system, and it appeared to have been rolled up — face in — which is usually worse than rolling a painting face out, stated Rivers.

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” (1954-1955) suffered in depth paint loss, proven right here in horizontal traces, possible attributable to the painting being peeled from a secondary wax canvas after which rolled up.

Collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson. Gift of Edward J. Gallagher, Jr. © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Still, a lot of the injury is believed to have been finished when the thief peeled the canvas away from its wax lining, she stated. Miller informed CNBC the liner was added in 1974 by the Museum of Modern Art to reinforce the painting after it was broken throughout transit on the time.

“When the thief began to cut the canvas away from the frame, the knife did not go through both canvases,” stated Rivers. “It must have been a somewhat confusing moment since the thief probably expected the painting to come away easily.”

The conservation course of

Rivers stated she cleaned, reattached the microscopic paint fragments and ready the painting’s broken edges — a course of which took 2.5 years.

To restore the microscopic items of paint caught between the layers of varnish, Laura Rivers (right here) stated she used a stereomicroscope, a warmth pencil, small dental instruments, silicone coloration shapers and tiny brushes. “It was the smallest and the largest of jigsaw puzzles,” she stated.

Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As demonstrated in a video on Getty’s web site, Ulrich Birkmaier, the Getty’s senior conservator, reattached the perimeters to the unique canvas and stuffed in among the misplaced paint, a course of referred to as “inpainting,” Rivers stated.

In all, the conservation venture took about three years, although a few of this was due to pandemic-related delays, she stated.

Back in public view

After a brief exhibition on the Getty Center, “Woman-Ochre” is headed again to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the place it should open to the general public through a particular exhibition beginning Oct. 8.

“Once that exhibition is over in May, it will indeed move back up to the very wall it was stolen from, where it will stay for many, many years to come,” stated Miller.

Getty conservator Laura Rivers removes discolored varnish from the floor of “Woman-Ochre.”

Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Andy Schulz, The University of Arizona’s Vice President for the Arts (left), and Getty conservation scientist Tom Lerner (proper) take a look at “Woman-Ochre” on the opening of Getty’s “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery” exhibition in June 2022.

Courtesy of Chris Richards / University of Arizona. Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Miller stated the museum is not attaching a greenback worth to the work due to heightened consideration round its return, however when it comes to cultural and academic worth, Miller stated “we consider it priceless.”

The story of “Woman-Ochre” has now been made right into a film. Miller stated the filmmakers did a “great job” and that she was “especially impressed with how many interviews they secured, including … people who knew Jerry and Rita personally.”

The FBI case into who stole the painting stays open, she stated.  

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