UArizona's stolen painting, now restored, makes Getty Museum debut
Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre," stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 and unexpectedly returned more than three decades later, underwent a complex restoration at the world-renowned Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
It was an exhibit opening nearly 37 years in the making.
When Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" went on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles on Tuesday, it was the first time the famous painting had been publicly exhibited since it was brazenly cut from its frame at the University of Arizona Museum of Art by a pair of thieves more than three decades ago.
The shocking 1985 theft – and the painting's unexpected return to the university in 2017 – made international headlines and are the subject of the forthcoming documentary "The Thief Collector," directed by Allison Otto.
Now, after almost three years of painstaking work by Getty conservators, the damaged de Kooning has been restored and will be on display at the Getty until Aug. 28. It will then come home to the University of Arizona, where it will make its long-awaited Tucson debut in October.
"To have this painting back as yet another artwork that can inspire people – it's the best possible outcome we could have hoped for," said Olivia Miller, exhibitions curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, or UAMA. "The painting is still 'Woman-Ochre' by Willem de Kooning, but now it has this incredible story associated with it."
The painting's unveiling at the Getty marks the start of the next chapter of the stranger-than-fiction story of "Woman-Ochre" – one that UAMA staff say has helped put the university's art collection on the map.
"For so long, the museum has been this hidden gem within the university and Tucson and Arizona, and we're now getting the attention that the collection really deserves," said museum deputy director Jill McCleary. "'Woman-Ochre' is definitely a cornerstone of the collection, and the museum collection hasn't felt complete since it was gone. But now people are learning more about us and learning about the collection, and we couldn't be more thrilled."
A daring heist
De Kooning, a Dutch-American abstract expressionist, completed "Woman-Ochre" in 1955 as part of his "Woman" series. The painting was donated to UAMA in 1958 by a wealthy collector with the understanding that it would never be sold or given away.
The painting's actual fate ended up being much worse.
The day after Thanksgiving, in 1985, a man and woman entered the university museum just as it opened for the day. The woman started making small talk with museum staff. Meanwhile, the man wandered upstairs where he proceeded, unnoticed, to cut "Woman-Ochre" from its frame. Within 15 minutes, the man and woman were gone – and so was the painting. Left behind were a devastated security guard and an empty frame, with only remnants of the canvas remaining at its edges.
The heist was unusual in nature, as most art thefts are committed internally by staff or those in a position of trust, and art is most often stolen from storage areas rather than exhibitions. For years, the case stumped the FBI, which had little more than a sketch of the suspects to go on.
But then came the phone call that would change everything.
An emotional homecoming
In 2017, 32 years after the theft, David Van Auker, an antique dealer in Silver City, New Mexico – about three hours east of Tucson – called UAMA with the tip generations of museum staff had been waiting for: He might have something that belonged to them.
Van Auker and his business partners, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, had acquired a unique painting as part of an estate, following the death of a woman in rural Cliff, New Mexico. The artwork was found hanging on the wall behind the woman's bedroom door. While intrigued by the piece, Van Auker and his partners thought little of it at the time. They purchased it, along with other items, for $2,000 and took them back to their antique shop, Manzanita Ridge, in Silver City.
It wasn't until after a few keen-eyed customers took notice of the piece in the shop and asked if it was an original de Kooning that the store owners start to get suspicious. A quick Google search led Van Auker to an Arizona Republic article on the 30-year anniversary of the theft, and that's when he realized he might be in possession of a painting with an estimated worth of more than $100 million.
Miller, the museum's exhibitions curator, was the one who took Van Auker's call.
"I was cautiously optimistic," she said. "It was really exciting to get that phone call. I was excited to have any sort of clue to move the story forward, but at the same time I didn't want to get my hopes up for something that may have been nothing."
Miller wondered at first if Van Auker had found a poster reproduction of the painting, although she didn't know any to exist. Van Auker then sent some photos of the artwork.
"We started getting the photos, and as each new detail came in, it became more and more clear that if it wasn't the real thing, it was an incredible hoax," McCleary said.
The next day, Miller, McCleary and other anxious museum staff members were on the road to Silver City for an emotional reunion with a piece none of them had ever seen in person, but that had become the stuff of museum lore.
"First seeing the painting – the very first moment – was surreal," McCleary recalled. "Even though I had never seen it before, we had talked about the painting so much and I had seen images of the painting so many times that it was almost like being reunited with a long-lost friend. I was so overcome with emotion and so much happiness."
Museum staff carefully packed up the painting and transported it home to the UArizona campus, where it was officially authenticated. It was an emotional moment Miller and her colleagues never expected to see, and that they may not have, if not for Van Auker and his partners.
"It really feels like the stars aligned for it to fall in their hands," Miller said. "I keep thinking of every sort of possible misstep that could very easily have happened that would have put this painting underground for another 30 years."
A fixer upper
In 2019, "Woman-Ochre" began the next leg of its journey when it was sent to the world-renowned Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which had agreed to restore the damaged painting at no cost to the university. Due to the violent nature in which the painting was sliced from its frame and torn from its backing, there was much work to be done.
"This was the most complex conservation project that I've ever worked on," said Laura Rivers, an associate paintings conservator at the Getty.
During the challenging research and conservation project – which was slowed at times due to the pandemic – Getty staff members used a series of sophisticated techniques that allowed them to gain new insights into the materials and techniques de Kooning used, as they worked to bring the painting closer to its original appearance.
In addition to the damage it sustained in the heist, the painting had been further damaged by the thieves, who attempted to reframe it using a cheap canvas stretcher, made crude paint and tear repairs, and applied a cheap varnish in addition to one that had already been applied.
Among other things, the conservators' work involved removing the varnishes, re-bonding flaking paint to the canvas, filling in areas where paint had been lost and reuniting the canvas with the edges that remained in the original frame.
"The Getty Paintings Conservation Department is the gold standard in terms of paintings conservation, so being able to partner with them is an extraordinary opportunity," said Andy Schulz, UArizona vice president for the arts and dean of the College of Fine Arts. "What we're going to see in the exhibition, both at the Getty and then in Tucson in October, is this really interesting integration between art and science, and new understandings about this painting and about the artist through the application of really advanced scientific techniques."
The Getty involved the university in the conservation process from start to finish.
"They have been incredible to work with. It has been a truly collaborative partnership every step of the way," McCleary said. "They kept us updated as every new phase started, and any time there has needed to be a decision made about its care, they included us in that."
Later this week, Schulz, McCleary, Miller and other UAMA and Getty representatives will gather for a private reception at the Getty to reflect on all that's happened since the theft. Two of the unlikely heroes of the story of "Woman-Ochre" – antique dealers Van Auker and Burns – will be there, too.
"We're good friends at this point; we talk to them regularly," McCleary said.
A crown jewel comes home
The theft of "Woman-Ochre" remains shrouded in mystery. The painting ultimately turned up in the home of Jerry and Rita Alter, two former New York City schoolteachers who eventually retired in New Mexico. They didn't exactly fit the profile of criminal masterminds, but they did bear some resemblance to the FBI sketch of the suspects. And Jerry, who died five years before Rita, had self-published three books, one of which included a story with striking similarities to the "Woman-Ochre" theft – about a grandmother and granddaughter stealing an emerald from a city museum.
Family photos suggest that the Alters were in Tucson visiting family on Thanksgiving in 1985, the day before the painting was stolen. Photos from that same year also suggest they drove a red sports car. After the theft, witnesses told police the thieves fled in a rust-colored or cherry red sports car.
While suspicion has fallen on the Alters, their living relatives have suggested that the pair may have bought the painting from someone else without knowing what it was.
The case, now closed, remains unsolved.
But what's most important to those at UAMA is that a crown jewel of its art collection will soon be home.
"It couldn't be a bigger moment for us and for the university to have it back for the students and the faculty, as well as the greater community across Arizona," McCleary said. "It's going to mean so much to everyone to be able to see it again in person and to be able to continue research and study of the painting that should have been happening for the last 37 years."
McCleary hopes the famous painting will open the door for visitors to get to know the rest of the museum's collection, which also includes works by prominent artists like Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, just to name a few.
"I do believe that it will be an entrance to the collection – a gateway for people to learn more about what else is in the collection and the incredible works we have," she said.
Schulz, an art historian, said he looks forward to seeing what the next chapter holds for "Woman-Ochre."
"The story about this painting has so much become about its theft and recovery, and now its restoration," he said. "What's going to be interesting to see, in the future, is if that continues to be how we talk about this painting or if we start talking about it again – and more – in terms of the work of art itself and the position it occupies in the evolution of American paintings."
The public will be able to view "Woman-Ochre" at the University of Arizona Museum of Art beginning Oct. 8.
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