Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery
On November 29th, 1985, two art thieves – “a man and a woman in thick winter coats” – followed an employee into the University of Arizona Museum Of Art. The time? Almost 9 am. Right before opening.
The woman chatted to the security guard, while the man crept upstairs. They left so quickly – less than 15 minutes later – that the guards got suspicious. They were right to be concerned.
In that short time, the man had mercilessly ripped a controversial de Kooning – the artist’s 1954-55 ‘Woman-Ochre’ – out of its frame. As Ulrich Birkmaier, senior paintings conservator at the Getty Museum, says: ” The brutal way in which it was ripped from its lining caused severe paint flaking and tears, not to mention the damage caused by the blade that was used to slice it from its frame”.
There were no fingerprints, and the Museum had no security cameras.
‘Woman-Ochre’ could have been yet another major artwork stolen, never to be seen again. But, 30 years after the heist, the FBI and the University of Arizona reminded the world of the theft. After all, stolen paintings would often reappear after the death of their captors.
‘Woman-Ochre’, 1954–1955, Willem de Kooning. Oil on canvas, 40 × 30 in. 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
Meanwhile, art-savvy customers of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques noticed a most convincing De Kooning reproduction hanging around the store. Could it be real?
Owners David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson had bought the painting in the estate lot of a deceased couple from New Mexico. Van Auker contacted the University of Arizona Museum of Art whose staff flew out quickly – along with FBI agents – to see for themselves. When they brought the painting back to Tucson, it was a perfect match for the bits of canvas that had not been ripped off the frame so many years ago. This was William de Kooning’s ‘Woman-Ochre’.
And what of the deceased couple – teachers Jerry and Rita Alter – who had hung the painting out of public view, behind the bedroom door? Innocent shoppers or unlikely art thieves?
In her 2022 Documentary, ‘The Thief Collector’, Allison Otto has a theory:
The Getty Museum partnered with UAMA to take on the arduous work of repairing the damage that the poor painting endured during the slash and dash, and in the decades since.
It is this reconstructive work that is highlighted in ‘Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery’ – an exhibit running at Los Angeles’ Getty Center until August 28th. Come Fall, ‘Woman-Ochre’ will be back to its original home at The University of Arizona.
Conservator Ulrich Birkmaier concludes: “To bring a painting from such dire condition to a place where it can now be safely exhibited is an immense achievement.”
To see de Kooning at work, here is an excerpt from Courtney Sale Ross’s 1983 documentary ‘Strokes of Genius: de Kooning on de Kooning’.
Getty’s Senior Paintings Conservator Ulrich Birkmaier inpainting Woman-Ochre. Artwork © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York