On the morning of November 29, 1985, a man and woman sat in the courtyard of the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) waiting for the galleries to open for the day. At around 9 am, the pair entered the museum, and while the woman distracted a security guard, the man walked upstairs. Soon after the couple drove away in a rust-colored sports car, the guard found that Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” (1954–1955) had been sliced from its frame. Now, 37 years since its theft, the oil painting is back at the Tuscon museum and will go on public display there this Saturday, October 8.
UAMA did not have security cameras in 1985, and no one was ever charged in the theft. In 2017, “Woman-Ochre” turned up in the sale of the estate of Rita and Jerry Alter in New Mexico, where antiques dealer David Van Auker purchased a group of objects for $2,000 — including “Woman-Ochre,” which was hanging behind the late couple’s bedroom door.
Van Auker brought the abstract portrait, similar to those in the artist’s famed Woman series, back to his store in Silver City, New Mexico, where a visitor soon mentioned that it looked authentic. Van Auker found a 2015 Arizona Republic article about the theft and called the museum.
“When we brought the painting back to Tucson, we asked conservator Nancy Odegaard to conduct a preliminary authentication to determine if it was indeed the same painting that was stolen from our museum,” Olivia Miller, interim director and curator of exhibitions at UAMA, told Hyperallergic. “After a two-hour inspection, she placed the found canvas on top of the edges that were left behind in the theft — they fit perfectly, just like a puzzle. It was without a doubt the same painting that was stolen in 1985.”
Similar de Kooning works have sold in the tens of millions of dollars, and some estimates place the value of “Woman Ochre” at over $100 million. The Federal Bureau of Investigations required that the work stay at the museum for two years, so in 2019, UAMA sent “Woman-Ochre” to the Getty Institute for conservation. Senior Paintings Conservator Ulrich Birkmaier commented that the painting arrived in “rough shape.”
“The brutal way in which it was ripped from its lining caused severe paint flaking and tears, not to mention the damage caused by the blade that was used to slice it from its frame,” Birkmaier added.
In his escape, the thieves had rolled the painting and hidden it underneath his winter jacket, cracking the paint in the process. In addition to the damage inflicted during the heist, they also tried to reframe and repair the canvas and applied a “cheap varnish,” according to the Getty.
The Los Angeles institution displayed the painting this summer in an exhibition titled Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery. The show was dedicated entirely to the stolen work.
Miller noted that de Kooning began his Women series in the 1950s. “Most of his woman paintings are not understood as specific portraits of individuals, but are largely symbolic, representing larger concepts related to the process of painting the human figure, womanhood, or the history of women’s representation in art and popular culture,” she said. “When he first began exhibiting these paintings, they caused a stir, in part because they were figural works when others were painting in full abstraction. The ferocity with which he portrayed the women continues to incite critical dialogue to this day.”
The brazen theft was an unusual one. Jerry and Rita Alter retired to New Mexico after New York City public school careers as a band teacher and speech pathologist, and there is no known evidence of the pair attempting to sell the painting. Yet, besides the discovery of “Woman-Ochre” in the late couple’s home, another piece of evidence links the Alters to the crime: A photograph that places them in Tuscon the night before the theft looks a lot like the FBI’s sketch of the two thieves.
“Woman-Ochre” will be on view at UAMA from October 8 through May 20 in another exhibition recounting the story of the painting’s theft and return, where it will hang in the same spot it was stolen from 37 years ago.