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The incredible story behind a de Kooning theft


On November 29, 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, Willem de Kooning's Woman Ochre (estimated at the time at $400,000) was stolen from the University of Arizona Art Museum in Tucson. At the time, the museum was not yet equipped with surveillance cameras, and no fingerprints were found. The only clue: a red car had stormed out of the museum.


De Kooning's Woman and Bicycle (1952-1953)

Completed in 1955, Woman Ochre is an extension of the Women series (6 works produced between 1950 and 1953). The series itself is nothing short of iconic at this point: it marks the artist's return to figuration, at a time when the whole world was turning to the new American abstraction. For this reason, the series was roundly criticized by the artist's Abstract Expressionist peers. The large-scale canvases depicting women also provoked a wide array of public reactions, some even going so far as to accuse the artist of misogyny. De Kooning is said to have been inspired by the seated Madonnas, which he rendered profane: with their gleaming teeth and large breasts, these women could have resembled the fantasies of the sexualized pin-ups of the 1950s—who were emancipating themselves from the stereotypes of the American housewife. However, the wildly applied pigments, hastily brushed strokes and tangled lines give these bodies a furious, jagged image. Playing on an opposition between substance and form, the pin-up figure disappears beneath the deformations: with their protruding teeth, empty eyes and exploded extremities, these women correspond more to the nightmare than the fantasy of the modern man. As for Woman Ochre, it was bought for $6,000 by an American collector and donated to the Tucson Museum a few years later.

 

In 2017, the same art museum received a call from David Van Auker, an antique dealer in New Mexico who thought he had bought Woman Ochre from among $2,000 worth of personal effects purchased from the nephew of a recently deceased retired couple of mild-mannered teachers from New York —the Alters. Van Auker had wondered about the provenance of this work, which he did not know, after a client offered him $200,000 for a work that was nevertheless very damaged and called the museum after some research. The painting underwent a two-hour authentication process, during which its edges were compared to the empty frame it had been cut from (which was itself exhibited in 2015 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the painting’s theft): it was a perfect match. After that, the work was returned to the museum. It was on display there for a few hours before being sent to the Getty Conservation Institute for restoration in 2019. With Covid, the restoration took 3 years, and was very costly (over a million euros, but paid for by the Getty Conservation Institute in exchange for an exhibition of the work once it had been restored). According to the restorers, most of the destruction took place during the theft itself.


The hypothesis is as follows: two thieves—presumably the Alter couple—went to the Tucson Art Museum before opening hours. Taking advantage of the entrance of a member of the team, they entered a museum that was still empty, and the woman started chatting with the guard to distract him, while the man started to cut the canvas with a box cutter to extract the picture from its frame in another room. They left in a hurry, with the canvas rolled up under their coats. The brutal cutting and rolling of the canvas caused horizontal cracks and major flaking of the paint all over the surface. Fragments of paint were also trapped between the first coat of varnish (applied by MoMA in 1974) and a second coat of poor-quality varnish applied after the theft by the criminals. After restoration, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles exhibited it in summer 2022, and the work returned to the Tucson Museum in October.



Police sketches of the couple behind the theft

For the Alter couple's friends and family, there is not a shadow of a doubt about their innocence. According to them, they acquired the painting without knowing its provenance. This theory was refuted by the antique dealer who discovered the painting in their home, who found dust characteristic of a very long hanging. What's more, several drawings and replicas of de Kooning's work were found in the couple's home at the time of their death, presaging the couple's interest in the artist. A family photo recently found by the couple's nephew also shows that the couple was present in Tucson to spend Thanksgiving in 1985 and had a red car at the time. On the photo, the Alters also bear a striking resemblance to the police sketch of the robbery suspects. On top of that, the Alters' diary, which had been filled out daily throughout their lives, was mysteriously empty during the festive season of 1985. Last but not least, in a collection of short stories published by Jerry Alter, one of them describes the theft of an emerald from a museum.The last line of the story could evoke the theft of the de Kooning, which was only visible when the couple were in their bedroom with a closed door: "And two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see! ". Almost thirty years later, the Alter couple still has not been officially convicted by the FBI.


 

In addition to its criminal dimension, this theft is also interesting in terms of restoration: the restorers' aim was to restore the painting as close as possible to its original state, while recognizing that this was impossible. The story of the theft remains physically inscribed in the painting. The Getty team first mapped the pigments on the canvas using Macro X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) technology, which identified the chemical elements and the various layers of paint. After removal of the two layers of varnish, the original colors returned. The fact that de Kooning often mixed enamel with oil paints made the surface much more prone to flaking. Every little chip of paint that had come off the canvas as a result of the theft was glued back on, and the retouching was then done in acrylic so that it could be removed in the future if necessary. Prior to its rediscovery, the work was estimated to be worth around $160 million (in 2006, another work in the series, "Woman III", sold for $137.5 million).



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