Lost and found: a stolen de Kooning makes its debut

Lost and found: a stolen de Kooning makes its debut
The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by UA Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton (r), Exhibitions Specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, Registrar. Courtesy University of Arizona Museum of Art.
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In 1985, Woman-Ochre (1955) by Willem de Kooning was stolen. Cut from its frame, the painting was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) in Tucson where it had been for 27 years. The whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery until it was recovered in 2017 by Manzanita Ridge Furniture Antiques. Now, after a year and a half, the painting has made its second debut at the museum ahead of conservation efforts.

When teachers Jerome and Rita Alter passed away, their nephew, Ron Roseman, hired David Van Auker to appraise the estate of the quiet, well-travelled couple. Auker, who is a co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture Antiques, bought the contents of the Atler’s house, which included the stolen painting, for about $2,000. Neither Roseman nor Auker knew anything about the painting or its history. It wasn’t until Auker put it up in his shop that customers started commenting on it. After a Google search, it became obvious that the painting might be the missing de Kooning. Auker then called the UAMA to inform them that he thought he might have found the painting they’d been looking for for nearly 30 years. Since its discovery, the FBI has embarked in an ongoing investigation to determine if the Alters were in fact the couple who stole the painting and for that reason, the painting was considered evidence and could not undergo necessary restoration.


‘Woman-Ochre’ seen hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter’s bedroom door. Photo by Rick Johnson. Courtesy of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques.


While the FBI worked on the case, the painting was housed in the UAMA’s stores and has been out of view due to its status. However, in November, the museum got the okay to bring Woman-Ochre out of storage. On March 17th, the museum held a pricey cocktail party to ‘reveal’ the painting for the first time since it was taken. The painting’s next stop will be the Getty Center in Los Angeles to undergo conservation. Over the course of the next year, Ulrich Birkmaier, a senior paintings conservator at the Getty Museum, and Tom Learner, head of science at the Getty Conservation Institute, will work to repair damages made to the painting. Once conservation is complete, the painting will be a part of a 2020 exhibition at the Getty before returning home to the UAMA.

‘Unfortunately, the painting suffered considerable damage as a result of the theft,’ Birkmaier told the New York Times. ‘In 1985 when the painting was cut out of its frame — actually a very clean cut — the thief ripped it off the lining, which caused a lot of horizontal cracks.’ The painting also endured damage when it was tightly rolled up by the thief in order to store it in their coat as they made their getaway from the museum. Sections of paint that are ‘lifting off’ will be re-secured and the cut-out portion of the painting will be ‘reunited’ with the border left attached to the canvas stretchers. ‘Once the painting is consolidated, cleaned and restretched, there will be endless debates with my team and Arizona about retouching,’ Learner told the New York Times. ‘My instinct is that we are going to err toward maintaining the existing condition because that’s where conservation is at the moment.’ Birkmaier and Learner will also run tests on the painting to better understand de Kooning’s choice of materials.