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A Long-Lost de Kooning Is Being Restored, But Will Always Bear the Scars of Its Theft

Willem de Kooning’s “Woman–Ochre” was missing for over 30 years. Now recovered, it shows signs of mishandling and amateur restoration that are difficult to fix.

Willem de Kooning, “Woman-Ochre” (1954-1955), oil on canvas, Gift of Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr. © 2019 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; University of Arizona

After 30 years in absentia, a stolen painting by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning resurfaced in the estate of a New Mexico couple. Titled “Woman–Ochre” and likely worth over $100,000,000, it is now being professionally restored at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum. The job is proving trickier than usual, partly because the work bears scars of the heist and subsequent amateur conservation attempt.

The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, an unidentified couple followed a staff member into the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art. The woman distracted a security guard while the man cut the painting out of its frame, rolled it up, and tucked it into his jacket. There were no security cameras at the time, and the couple took off in a rust-colored sports car before anyone could stop them. The theft remained a mystery for over three decades. In a 2015 Arizona Public Media feature (produced two years before the painting reappeared), the museum’s registrar Kristen Schmidt said “it still haunts us, 30 years later.”

In 2017, New Mexico resident Rita Alter — who survived her husband Jerry — died, and the couple’s possessions were sold to a local antique store for $2,000. Store owner David Van Auker identified the de Kooning work, and within days it was returned to the University of Arizona. It is not known whether Rita and Jerry Alter were the unidentified couple who stole the painting in 1985, though it seems likely.

Little has been revealed about the intervening 30 years, but one thing has become clear since the team at the Getty started their restoration efforts: someone else tried to fix the injuries to the work, and they did a very bad job.

“It’s definitely […] an amateurish attempt,” Ulrich Birkmaier, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum, told the Arizona Republic. When the painting was cut from its frame and rolled up tightly, it sustained horizontal creases and a large tear in the lower left corner. Someone attempted to fill in the creases, but the colors don’t match. “It’s off by quite a bit,” Birkmaier said. A professional restoration job on those creases is now underway, and will take months of time under a microscope and an extensive understanding of color and paint chemistry. “It will be hundreds of hours all together, paint flake by paint flake,” Birkmaier told Hyperallergic.

The tear in the corner was patched with a large swath of canvas that conservators will carefully remove. The recovered painting was also stapled to a stretcher that “looked to be homemade,” Birkmaier said. They hope to reattach the painting with the rest of the canvas that was left behind in the frame. The goal is to return the painting to as close to its original state as possible. “To the casual museum-goer, it might appear perfectly fine,” Birkmaier said of the final product. “But there are always going to be some remnants, some scars. That’s just going to be part of the history of the painting.”

De Kooning is known to have used a wide variety of unusual media, and “Woman–Ochre” is composed of house paint and charcoal, in additional oil paint. The thieves (or their ill-advised conservator) sprayed a layer of varnish over the painting that will be particularly challenging to remove because of the potential of smudging the charcoal. In addition, there is another layer of varnish that was applied in 1974 when the work was loaned to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“Woman–Ochre” has been in the Getty’s possession since April 2019 and will be undergoing restoration until well into 2020. Once finished, the painting will be on display at the Getty for four months in the fall of 2020 before being returned to the University of Arizona, where it will remain in perpetuity. This time, with security cameras. “It’s very exciting,” Birkmaier said. “We can’t wait to see it whole again.”

A word of advice to all the art thieves out there: put in a few good years as a conservationist before you go slapping paint and varnish onto the masterpieces you nab. It’s really the least you can do.

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