A Newly Restored Willem de Kooning Painting, Stolen in a Brazen Heist Decades Ago, Will Go Back on View
The Getty Center in Los Angeles will show the painting in June.
A long-lost painting by Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre (1955), has been rediscovered, and is now making a victory lap in the U.S.
A pair of schoolteachers, Jerry and Rita Alter, are thought to have stolen the work in 1985, in broad daylight, from the Arizona University Museum of Art. It appears that the couple walked into the museum when it opened and while Rita distracted the guard, Jerry walked up to the painting, cut it from its frame, and then exited the museum 10 minutes later.
The whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery for 32 years, until the Silver City, New Mexico, antiques dealer Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques bought the contents of Alters’ home for $2,000 after they both died in 2017.
Once it was hanging in the antiques shop it wasn’t long before the painting was recognized. The shop owners contacted the University of Arizona and took down the painting, now valued at around $100 million.
“Unfortunately, the painting suffered considerable damage as a result of the theft,” senior conservator Ulrich 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, which had been stapled into a new frame, was badly damaged. Conservators at the Getty undertook a painstaking process to restore the painting which involved removing layers of varnish, including one applied by MoMA in 1974 and a later one applied by the Alters. They used dental tools and tiny amounts of paint to fill small rips and tears and clean the work before installing it back into its original frame.
The work will go on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery,” from June 7 through August 28, before returning to the University of Arizona Museum, where it will appear in “Art in Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre,” October 8 through May 2023.
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