The art heist saga with a happy ending: What to know about the stolen de Kooning on view in Arizona

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a man and a woman entered the nearly deserted University of Arizona Museum of Art and left after only a few minutes.

Moments later, a security guard discovered that a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning had been cut and ripped from its frame.

That painting, "Woman-Ochre," remained missing for more than 30 years.

Then, in a bizarre twist, New Mexico antique dealers hired to liquidate an estate in 2017 discovered the stolen painting in the home of a deceased couple in the tiny ranching community of Cliff, New Mexico.  The antique dealers called the museum, who rushed to pick up the art and ushered it back to Tucson with a police escort.

The theft had severely damaged the abstract painting, preventing the museum from putting the art back on exhibit.

Now, after a lengthy restoration at the world-famous Getty Museum in Los Angeles, "Woman-Ochre" is the star of a special exhibit opening October 8 in Tucson.

Here's a quick primer on the famous painting:

How did 'Woman-Ochre' end up in the home of a retired New Mexico couple?

We don't really know. Jerry and Rita Alter are dead, and their relatives have been unable to shed light on how two retired school employees ended up with the art work.  Many clues point to the Alters as being involved in the theft:

  • The Alters resemble a composite sketch of the suspected thieves released by police in 1985.

  • Witnesses said the thieves fled the museum in a rust-colored sports car; the Alters almost exclusively owned red cars.

  • A family photograph places the Alters in Tucson on Thanksgiving Day in 1985, the day before the painting was stolen in the same city.

  • Jerry self-published a book, "The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales," in 2011 based on travel stories that he called a mix of fiction and reality. In one story, titled "The Eye of the Jaguar," a grandmother and her granddaughter case a city museum and 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. The details are similar to the de Kooning theft.

The FBI has declined comment on whether the couple were the thieves. The Alters are the only people who know for sure how they obtained the painting, said Tim Carpenter, senior special adviser to the FBI Art Crime Team,

"And they took that to the grave with them, unfortunately,” he said.

The FBI case is closed but could be reopened if new information comes to light. Anyone with information can contact the FBI at: tips.fbi.gov/.

How was the stolen painting recovered?

After Rita Alter died in 2017, their nephew and estate executor, Ron Roseman, hired antique dealers to clean out their house.

David Van Auker, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge in Silver City, New Mexico, says he believes Jerry and Rita Alter stole the Woman Ochre painting by Willem de Kooning. Van Auker and his partners found the de Kooning during an estate sale.
David Van Auker, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge in Silver City, New Mexico, says he believes Jerry and Rita Alter stole the Woman Ochre painting by Willem de Kooning. Van Auker and his partners found the de Kooning during an estate sale.

The owners of Manzanita Ridge in nearby Silver City — David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson — bought the contents of the home for $2,000. They also paid a couple of hundred dollars extra for a few items they wanted to keep, including an abstract painting of a naked woman hanging behind the Alter's bedroom door.

The antique dealers didn't recognize the painting as famous or stolen. Almost immediately, a visitor to their antique store spotted the painting and said: "I think that's a real de Kooning."

Van Auker went to his computer and found a 2015 article in The Arizona Republic about the stolen painting. He called the art museum in a panic and told them he suspected he had purchased a stolen painting. Museum staff rushed to Silver City to pick up the painting and ushered it back to Tucson with a police escort, where it was later authenticated as the stolen de Kooning.

The recovery made national news.

Why is the painting famous?

De Kooning is one of the most famous artists of the 20th Century. He was considered a leader in a great cultural resurgence that took place in New York City after World War II. He is known for a style called abstract expressionism, which is characterized by sweeping brush strokes that evoke emotion.

De Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" is part of his famous "Women" series where the artist explored the female figure. The Women paintings shocked the art world because of their aggressive nature where the female form is characterized by wide eyes, big mouths and exaggerated breasts.

How did the painting become part of the museum's collection?

Baltimore businessman and art collector Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. donated "Woman-Ochre" to the university's museum in 1958. He was a frequent visitor to Arizona and gave the painting and other artworks in memory of his son, Edward Gallagher III, who died in a boating accident at age 13.

Gallagher wanted the great works to be accessible to students, he told the Tucson Daily Citizen in 1974.

“I was never particularly interested in collecting for myself,” he said. “I believe art should be where everyone can see it.”

The painting was a gem in the museum’s collection. The small museum was known for having a de Kooning, a Jackson Pollock and a Mark Rothko.

How much is the painting worth?

"Woman-Ochre" was worth an estimated $6,000 when donated. When it was stolen almost 30 years later, it was valued at up to $700,000. De Kooning's art exploded in value during the years "Woman-Ochre" was missing.

A similar painting by de Kooning, "Woman III," sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

The university in 2015 estimated "Woman-Ochre" at between $100 million and $160 million. But university officials, on the advice of attorneys, aren't publicly releasing a current value.

Why did it take 5 years to exhibit the painting?

Ulrich Birkmaier, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, restores "Woman-Ochre" an oil-on-canvas painting by Willem de Kooning.
Ulrich Birkmaier, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, restores "Woman-Ochre" an oil-on-canvas painting by Willem de Kooning.

The heist badly damaged "Woman-Ochre."

The thief used a sharp object — possibly a box cutter — to slash the 30-inch-wide by 40-inch-tall painting from its frame. The painting was glued to a secondary canvas. So the thief ripped the painting out, rolled it up and hid it under his winter coat. The rolling caused significant cracks across the painting's surface.

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles restored the painting for free in exchange for exhibiting the finished work. Under a microscope, conservators reattached lifting and flaking paint with special tools. They used a tiny brush and pigments to fill in where paint had been lost. They also removed two coats of discolored varnish that gave the painting a gray or yellowish tint.

The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the time that conservators could spend in the conservation lab, slowing the work.

How can I see 'Woman-Ochre?'

"Woman-Ochre" will be on exhibit beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 8 at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1031 N. Olive Road, Tucson. The museum is open until 4:30 p.m. that day.

The museum is typically closed on Sundays but will be open special for the exhibit on  October 9 from noon to 4 p.m.

Olivia Miller, the museum's interim director and curator, said she expects lots of visitors on Saturday, which is why museum staff decided to open with special hours on Sunday as well.

A companion exhibit in a neighboring gallery, "Abstract perspectives in Mid-Century Art" features work by de Kooning's wife, Elaine de Kooning, as well as artists Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and a recent acquisition to the museum's collection by George McNeil. See the museum's website for more information. Phone: (520) 621-7567.

Reporter Anne Ryman has written extensively about "Woman-Ochre" and was the first journalist to report that the painting had been recovered. Have a question about the painting? You can reach her at anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today. 

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How to see the $100M Willem de Kooning painting woman ochre