A purchase at a small town sale turned out to be a ‘priceless’ de Kooning painting stolen in 1985

Wealth

It was a heist that was as brazen as it was simple.

On the morning of Nov. 29, 1985, a couple 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 website:

“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 frame from which “Woman-Ochre” was cut, shown here in a 2015 event 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 didn’t have a camera system at the time, Miller told CNBC.  

The painting would remain missing for 32 years.

The painting resurfaces

In 2017, David Van Auker, the co-owner of a furniture and antiques store in Silver City, New Mexico, paid $2,000 for a collection of items an estate sale at a home in a small town outside of the city.

The home belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter, both former public school employees. Jerry was a “Sunday painter” — or hobbyist — and the couple were known to be adventurous (“they traveled to like 120 countries”), said Miller.   

Police sketches of the couple behind the theft of “Woman-Ochre.”
The University of Arizona Museum of Art

Among Van Auker’s purchase was a painting that hung behind the couple’s bedroom door, he told CNBC.

Van Auker put the painting in his store, where customers immediately started to ask about it, he said. But it wasn’t until a customer offered $200,000 for it that he and his co-owners decided to investigate, he said.

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

A moment to remember

Miller was talking to a colleague in her office when she heard a strange conversation over the museum’s security radio. A security guard said there was a man on the phone who claimed to have the museum’s stolen painting.  

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

Still, Miller said the moment wasn’t one of “instant excitement.” She said that while the man on the phone — which turned out to be Van Auker — sounded very genuine, she was concerned he could have a reproduction of some kind. So she asked him for photos, she said.

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

Another showed the edges of the painting, which were uneven and “corresponded to the edges that we had that remained behind.”

That’s when the FBI got involved, instructing Van Auker to quickly remove it from his store, said Miller. She said he stored it at a friend’s house until the museum could pick it up.

Badly damaged

Once the museum took possession of the painting, Miller said, the search was on to find a conservator with the expertise required to repair it. In what Miller called the “the absolute best scenario,” the Getty, which has its own conservation institute, agreed to accept it.

When the painting was returned, it was in “very poor condition,” said Laura Rivers, associate paintings 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 at the Getty, it was in “very poor condition,” said Laura Rivers, associate paintings conservator for the J. Paul Getty Museum.

It had horizontal cracking across the surface, and microscopic fragments of paint were scattered across the surface, caught between an early layer of varnish and a second layer applied after the theft, she said.

Plus, the face of the painting had been stapled onto a new strainer, or wooden support system, and it appeared to have been rolled up — face in — which is generally worse than rolling a painting face out, said Rivers.

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” (1954-1955) suffered extensive paint loss, shown here in horizontal lines, likely caused by the painting being peeled from a secondary wax canvas and then 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, most of the damage is believed to have been done when the thief peeled the canvas away from its wax lining, she said. Miller told CNBC the lining was added in 1974 by the Museum of Modern Art to reinforce the painting after it was damaged during transit at the time.

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

The conservation process

Rivers said she cleaned, reattached the microscopic paint fragments and prepared the painting’s damaged edges — a process which took 2.5 years.

To repair the microscopic pieces of paint caught between the layers of varnish, Laura Rivers (here) said she used a stereomicroscope, a heat pencil, small dental tools, silicone color shapers and tiny brushes. “It was the smallest and the largest of jigsaw puzzles,” she said.
Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As demonstrated in a video on Getty’s website, Ulrich Birkmaier, the Getty’s senior conservator, reattached the edges to the original canvas and filled in some of the lost paint, a process called “inpainting,” Rivers said.

In all, the conservation project took about three years, though some of this was due to pandemic-related delays, she said.

Back in public view

After a short exhibition at the Getty Center, “Woman-Ochre” is headed back to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where it will open to the public via a special exhibition starting 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,” said Miller.

Getty conservator Laura Rivers removes discolored varnish from the surface of “Woman-Ochre.”
Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen bought de Kooning’s “Woman III” for $137.5 million from business magnate David Geffen in a private sale in 2006, according to The New York Times.

While “Woman-Ochre” isn’t part of de Kooning’s “numbered” woman series, similar de Kooning paintings from the mid-1950s have sold for $4.5 million (2000) to $69 million (2018), according to the British auction house Christie’s website.

Andy Schulz, The University of Arizona’s Vice President for the Arts (left), and Getty conservation scientist Tom Lerner (right) look at “Woman-Ochre” at 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 said the museum isn’t attaching a dollar value to the work due to heightened attention around its return, but in terms of cultural and educational value, Miller said “we consider it priceless.”

The story of “Woman-Ochre” has now been made into a movie. Miller said 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 remains open, she said.  

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