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

It was a robbery that was as simple as it was shameless.

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

Museum curator Olivia Miller described the theft in a podcast interview on the J. Paul Getty Museum’s website:

“The building was about to open for the day. A man and a woman were sitting outside in the courtyard, and a staff entered the building, and they followed them.

The security guards are yet to take their places in the building. The man went upstairs to the second floor, and the security guard started going upstairs to get up. But the woman stopped him to talk about the painting hanging in the staircase. Now we know it was clearly a way to distract her and keep her from going upstairs.

About five to 10 minutes later, the man came back downstairs and the couple left the museum. The security guard kept walking upstairs, went through the galleries and only then realized that the ‘lady-ocher’ had been cut off from her frame.”

The frame from which the “Woman-ochre” was cut was shown here at a 2015 event to publicize the then 30-year anniversary of the stolen painting.

University of Arizona Museum of Art

The thieves left no fingerprints, and the museum did not have a camera system at the time, Miller told CNBC.

The painting would be missing for 32 years.

painting reappears

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

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

Police sketches of the couple behind the theft of “lady-ocher”.

University of Arizona Museum of Art

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

Van Auker kept the painting in his store, where customers immediately started asking 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 us to pay fairly for it,” Van Auker told CNBC. “We searched on google [and] … found an article about piracy.”

a moment to remember

Miller was talking to a colleague in his office when he heard a strange conversation on the museum’s security radio. A security guard said there was a person on the phone who claimed to have a stolen painting from the museum.

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

Still, Miller said the moment was not one of “instant excitement.” She said that while the man on the phone – who turned out to be Van Auker – looked very real, she was concerned that he might do some sort of reproduction. So he asked her for pictures, she said.

“Every time he sent a picture, we were getting more excited,” she said. “He said the painting had lines as if it had been rolled over.”

Another showed the edges of the painting, which were uneven and “consistent with the edges we had left behind.”

Miller said that when the FBI got involved, it instructed Van Auker to quickly remove it from his store. He said he keeps it at a friend’s house until the museum picks it up.

badly damaged

Once the museum took over the painting, Miller said, the search for a conservator with the expertise needed to repair it was on. In what Miller called “the best best-case 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 painting conservator of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Bob Demers, University of Arizona Artifacts | © 2022 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 painting conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

It had horizontal cracks on its surface, and microscopic pieces of paint were scattered across the surface, caught between an initial layer of varnish and a second layer applied after the theft, she said.

In addition, the painting face was stapled onto a new sieve, or wooden support system, and it appears to have been rolled – face in – which is generally worse than rolling a painting face. , Rivers said.

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-ochre” (1954–1955) suffered extensive paint loss, shown here in horizontal lines, possibly caused by peeling the painting from a secondary wax canvas and then rolling.

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 happened when the thief removed the canvas from its wax lining, she said. Miller told CNBC that 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 didn’t go through both canvases,” Rivers said. “It must have been a somewhat confusing moment because the thief probably expected the painting to come off easily.”

conservation process

Rivers said he cleaned up, reassembled the microscopic paint pieces and prepared the damaged edges of the painting—a process that took 2.5 years.

To repair microscopic pieces of paint caught between layers of varnish, Laura Rivers (here) said she used a stereomicroscope, a heat pencil, small dental tools, silicone-colored shapers, and small brushes. “It was the smallest and biggest puzzle,” she said.

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

As shown in a video on Getty’s website, Getty’s senior patron, Ulrich Birkmayr, repainted the edges to the original canvas and filled in some of the lost paint, a process known as “inpainting,” Rivers said. Told.

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

back in public view

After a short exhibition at the Getty Center, “Woman-ochre” heads back to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where it will open to the public through a special exhibition beginning October 8.

“Once that exhibition ends in May, it will actually return to the same wall it was stolen from, where it will remain for many years to come,” Miller said.

Getty Patron Laura Rivers removes discolored varnish from the surface of “lady-ocher.”

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 (right) at the opening of Getty’s “Conserving De Kooning: Theft and Recovery” exhibit in June 2022 “Woman-ochre” lets see. ,

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 adding a dollar value to the work because of the increased attention around its return, but in terms of cultural and educational value, Miller said, “we find it priceless.”

A film has now been made on the story of “Woman-Ochre”. Miller said the filmmakers did a “great job” and that he was “particularly impressed by the number of interviews they received, including … from people who knew Jerry and Rita personally.”

He said that the case of the FBI stealing the painting is open.

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