Stolen de Kooning conservation, plus a crazy twist

Woman-Ochre, the hugely valuable painting stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 and rediscovered in the modest home of a New Mexico couple after their estate was sold in 2017, is being restored by conservators at the Getty Museum and specialists at the Getty Conservation Institute. Cut out of its frame and rolled up by the thieves, then crudely stapled to a frame, the canvas was in poor condition when it was recovered. The University of Arizona has wisely decided to bring in the heavy artillery in the form of Getty experts.

The Getty is well versed in the work of de Kooning, whose idiosyncratic working methods have created intense speculation and debate among conservators and art historians, primarily from visual inspection and anecdotal accounts rather than rigorous technical analysis. In 2010, the Conservation Institute worked closely with Susan Lake, then head of collection management and chief conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C., on an in-depth study of de Kooning’s paintings from the 1940s through the 1970s, published by the Getty as Willem de Kooning: The Artist’s Materials.

The Getty-University of Arizona project will also be a teaching tool, providing access and information to graduate-level conservation and science students at local universities as well as those from the University of Arizona.

The restoration begins this month and is expected to take about two years. The painting will be briefly displayed at the Getty Museum in 2020 before returning home to the University of Arizona.

In the meantime, the investigation into the theft continues. The FBI won’t comment on the case until they’ve completed their investigation, but there is new information from non-law enforcement sources, and y’all, this is a crazy, CRAZY story.

Quick recap: November 29th, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, a man and a woman entered the UofA Museum of Art in Tucson. The woman distracted the security guard while the man cut Woman-Ochre out of its frame, rolled it up and hid it under a coat. Fifteen minutes after walking in the door, the couple walked out and neither they nor the painting they stole were seen again for 32 years.

In August of 2017, David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, bought a bunch of stuff from the estate of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, for $2000. Jerry, a retired music teacher, had died in 2012. Rita, a retired speech pathologist, died in June 2017. After her death, her nephew and executor of the estate, Ron Roseman, put the contents of their house up for sale.

It was customers of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques commented that the de Kooning sure looked a lot like a real one. A little Googling and a call to the University of Arizona and the next thing you know, its authenticity was confirmed and the painting was on its way back to Tucson.

The rediscovery of a painting that a conservative estimate based on past sales of works from the series would value at something in the neighborhood of $150 million in a little ranch house in rural New Mexico made big news, of course. How had the Alters acquired it? Nobody in their family knew anything about it. It was hanging in their bedroom blocked by the door and could only been seen from inside the room. Ron Roseman didn’t even know it existed until January of 2017 when he was helping out his aunt as she struggled with dementia in her final months.

After the find made the press, Ron found an interesting photo when going through some old family pictures. It was of his aunt and uncle smiling as they spent Thanksgiving of 1985 with family. In Tucson. This is that picture:

This is a composite sketch of the thieves published in the Arizona Daily Star of December 5th, 1985:

The getaway car was a rust color. Except for one blue one at a different time, the Alters only owned red cars. The painting only shows evidence of having been reframed once after the theft, an amateur hack job using a commercial pre-made frame, not custom work. Van Auker said it was coated in thick dust and that the frame’s outline was marked on the wall when he removed it. He’s sure the painting had been fixed in that place for decades.

Yeah. And it gets crazier.

The Alters wrote three books together, one about traveling, another about poetry and a twist on Aesop’s Fables.

“The Cup and The Lip: Exotic Tales” features fictional accounts of travel adventures. In one story, “Eye of the Jaguar,” a grandmother and her granddaughter case a local city museum and then return to steal its prize exhibit, a 120-carat emerald.

The thieves leave behind no clues. The jewel is kept hidden “several miles away” from the museum, behind a secret panel, “and two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!” he wrote.

No fingerprints were left at the scene of the crime. There was no security video in the museum at that time. There is no hard evidence to be found more than three decades after Woman-Ochre was purloined. But it sure does look like the Alters might just have done the unthinkable and pulled a massive heist for the sheer pleasure of looking at an abstract expressionist nude until the day they died. Is it weird that I can’t help but admire that a little? I mean, I can’t deny having fantasized about snagging some amazing artifact or artwork and cooing over it in secret for centuries as it shriveled me up and extended my life unnaturally like Gollum.