De Kooning’s “ocher woman” from the robbery home

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

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

Museum curator Olivia Miller described the theft in a book podcast interview On the J. Paul Getty Museum website:

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

Not all of the security guards have taken up their positions in the building yet. The man went up to the second floor, and the security guard began to go upstairs to take her position there. But the woman stopped her to talk to her about the painting hanging in the stairwell. We now know that this was an obvious way to distract her and prevent her from going upstairs.

After about five to 10 minutes, the man returned and the couple left the museum. The security guard kept going up, walked through the galleries and that’s when I realized the Woman-Ocher had snapped off her frame.

The frame from which “Woman-Ocher” was cut, is shown here at a 2015 event to announce the 30th anniversary of the painting stolen at the time.

University of Arizona Museum of Art

Miller told CNBC that the thieves did not leave fingerprints, and the museum did not have a camera system at the time.

The painting will remain missing for 32 years.

Show board

In 2017, David Van Oaker, co-owner of a furniture and antiques store in Silver City, New Mexico, paid $2,000 for a range of items being sold in a home in a small town out of town.

The house was owned by Jerry and Rita Alter, both former public school employees. Miller said Jerry was a “Sunday painter” – or amateur – and the couple were known to be adventurous (“They traveled to 120 countries like her”).

Police graphics of the couple behind the “Woman-Ocher” heist.

University of Arizona Museum of Art

Among Van Auker’s purchases was The painting behind the couple’s bedroom doorhe told CNBC.

He said Uecker put the plate up in his shop, where customers immediately started asking for it. It wasn’t until a client offered $200,000 for it, he said, that he and his colleagues decided to investigate.

“The client thought it might be of much more value and wanted to pay us for it fairly,” Van Oaker told CNBC. We searched on Google [and] … I found an article on theft.”

An unforgettable moment

Miller was talking to a colleague in her office when she overheard a strange conversation over the museum’s security radio. One of the security guards said there was a man on the phone who claimed the museum’s painting was stolen.

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

However, Miller said the moment was not an “instant excitement”. She said that while the man on the phone – who turned out to be Van Oecker – sounded very real, she was worried he could have some kind of reproduction. She said she asked him for pictures.

Watch the moment the stolen de Kooning returns home

“Every time he sent a picture, we were getting more and more excited,” she said. “He said the painting had stripes as if it were wrapped.”

He showed the last edges of the board, which were uneven and “correspond to the edges that were left behind.”

Miller said that when the FBI intervened, he instructed Van Oecker to quickly remove him from his store. She said he stored it at a friend’s house so the museum could pick it up.

Severely damaged

Once the museum acquired the painting, Miller said, a search was on to find a restoration worker with the expertise to repair it. In what Miller called “the best scenario ever,” 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, painting restoration assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Bob Demers, artwork at the University of Arizona | © 2022 Willem de Kooning Foundation, Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

When the painting arrived at the Getty Museum, Laura Rivers, painting restoration assistant at the J. Paul Getty Museum, said it was “in very bad shape.”

It had horizontal cracks across the surface, and microscopic shards of paint scattered across the surface, caught between an early coat of varnish and a second coat applied after the theft, she said.

In addition, the face of the board was stapled to a new strainer, or wooden support system, and appears to have been rolled—faced inward—which is generally worse than rolling the face of the board, Rivers said.

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ocher” (1954-1955) suffered significant loss of paint, shown here in horizontal stripes, likely due to the painting being peeled off from a secondary waxed canvas and then rolled.

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

However, most of the damage is believed to have occurred when the thief stripped the fabric off the wax lining, she said. Miller told CNBC that the inlay was added in 1974 by the Museum of Modern Art to enhance the painting after it had been damaged in transit at the time.

“When the thief began to cut the fabric away from the frame, the knife did not go through both fabrics,” Rivers said. “It must have been a rather confusing moment because the thief could have easily caught the painting.”

save process

Rivers said she cleaned and reassembled the paint’s microscopic bits and reattached the damaged board’s edges — a process that took 2.5 years.

To fix microscopic paint bits that were caught between layers of varnish, Laura Rivers (here) said she used a stereoscopic, thermal stylus, small dental tools, colored silicone molding tools, and small brushes. “It was the smallest and largest jigsaw puzzle,” she said.

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

As shown in Video on Getty’sD., Ulrich Berkmayr, Getty’s chief restoration officer, reattached the edges to the original canvas and filled in some of the missing paint, a process called “interior painting,” Rivers said.

She said the protection project took about three years, although some of this was due to pandemic-related delays.

Back to public view

After a brief exhibition at the Getty Center, “Woman-Ocher” is back at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where it will open to the public with a special exhibition beginning October 8.

“Once this show is over 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 archivist Laura Rivers removes faded varnish from the “Woman-Ocher” surface.

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

Andy Schulz, Vice President of Arizona State University of the Arts (left), and Getty’s conservation scientist Tom Lerner (right) look at “Woman-Ocher” 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 Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Miller said the museum does not attach dollar value to the work due to the growing interest around its return, but in terms of cultural and educational value, Miller said “we consider it invaluable.”

The story of the “ocher woman” now has It was made into a movie. Miller said the directors did a “fabulous job” and that she was “particularly impressed by the number of interviews they gave, including … the people who knew Jerry and Rita personally.”

She said the FBI’s case over who stole the painting was still open.

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