Famous Willem de Kooning painting, badly damaged in a heist, is finally restored

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Nearly four decades after a Willem de Kooning painting was violently cut from its frame at a museum and kept in a couple’s bedroom, the newly restored work, likely worth well above $100 million, will go on view publicly for the first time.

“Woman-Ochre” was famously missing from 1985 until 2017, when it was recovered from an antique shop in Silver City, New Mexico. The shop owner had acquired it and other belongings for around $2,000 in an estate sale following the deaths — in 2012 and 2017, respectively — of Jerry and Rita Alter, the couple who had the painting in their possession. A customer who suspected the artwork was a genuine de Koing set in motion the chain of events that led to its recovery, according to a podcast on the theft by the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which is exhibiting the painting this summer.

“Woman-Ochre” took years of meticulous conservation work after thieves stole it from the University of Arizona Museum of Art and attempted an amateur restoration. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society

The exhibition, “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery,” will take place after years of meticulous restoration by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and Getty Museum. De Kooning painted the canvas in 1954-55 as part of his famous six-painting “Woman” series, which was a return to figuration for the artist during a period when Abstract-Expressionists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, reigned. In 2006, another artwork from the series, “Woman III,” sold for a staggering $137.5 million. “Woman-Ochre” has been widely cited as being appraised for an even heftier price tag: $160 million.

Following the show at the Getty, “Woman-Ochre” will finally return to the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA), where it was brazenly stolen the morning after Thanksgiving Day in 1985 as the security guards were taking their posts.

Motive unknown

Stealing the painting only took about 15 minutes, as the museum was just opening up. Olivia Miller, UAMA curator of exhibitions, told the podcast that a woman distracted one of the guards while her partner cut the canvas out. They left just before the guard arrived at her post and noticed it missing. There was only one witness, who gave a description of a “rust-colored” car but did not get the license plate information.

The heist, which stumped conservators due to a lack of video footage or fingerprints, is still baffling to the curators and conservationists who have worked closely with the painting.

Willem de Kooning was one of the foremost abstract-expressionist painters.

Willem de Kooning was one of the foremost abstract-expressionist painters. Credit: Henry Bowden/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“It is strange,” said Ulrich Birkmaier, a senior conservator of painting at the Getty Museum, in a video call with CNN Style from the Institute’s studio space. “Nobody knows why (it was stolen). I mean, we know the how, but we don’t know the why.”

The “who” has never been definitively proven, either. Though photographs taken during the estate sale show that the Alters — a seemingly normal retired couple living in New Mexico — had the painting hanging behind their bedroom door, the FBI case is still open.

The Alters had De Kooning's

The Alters had De Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” hung behind their bedroom door. It was only discovered after they both died. Credit: Rick Johnson

But as Miller said in the podcast, the Alters had family in Tucson, where UAMA is located. Jerry also wrote a set of short stories, one of which was about jewel thieves who embarked on an emerald heist for the pleasure of viewing it privately.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know…exactly if they were indeed the people who stole the painting,” Miller said. “What we do know is that they were very adventurous people…We know that Jerry loved painting and we know they had family in Tucson, so perhaps this was just another adventure for them to check off on their list. It’s really hard to say.”

Irreversible damage

It has taken years for scientists and conservationists at the GCI to rehabilitate the most egregious damage to the artwork. Most of the destruction occurred during the theft itself, but an amateur restoration attempt using putty and paint modified the painting further while it was lost.

“You cannot really reverse what happened to the painting,” Berkmaier said.

Prior to the theft, and during an earlier conservation process at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the painting had been affixed to a second piece of canvas. This meant the thief had to forcefully rip the artwork in a downward and side-to-side motion to free it, Birkmaier said, creating a topographic map of horizontal riding across the surface.

“It was just a staggering amount of paint loss,” Birkmaier added.

The thief who cut the painting was forced to rip the canvas down and side to side to free it, causing

The thief who cut the painting was forced to rip the canvas down and side to side to free it, causing “a staggering amount of paint loss,” according to the Getty’s lead conservationist, Ulrich Birkmaier. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society

“When they cut it out of the frame, and pulled it off the other canvas, it must have been a moment of panic and shock, when they realized that all this paint flaked off,” he said.

Before the process began to repair and clean “Woman-Ochre,” four members of the GCI science team — Vincent Beltran, Lynn Lee, Douglas MacLennan and Joy Mazurek — conducted an analysis into de Kooning’s materials and process, as well as the impact of the damage.

That included mapping pigments across the canvas using Macro X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) technology, which identifies chemical elements; examining cross-sections of the painting’s layers; and studying how colors had faded over time.

According to Tom Learner, head of science at GCI, the fact that de Kooning often mixed house paints and artists’ oil paints made the surface much more prone to flaking.

“When paints dry on a door frame, there’s no flexing going on as you get with canvas, so they’re quite brittle,” Learner said in a video call with CNN Style. “So when you have house paints on a canvas painting…(it) is probably another factor why there was so much damage.”

A ‘painting’ process

To repair the surface, Birkmaier said, the associate paintings conservator Laura Rivers spent two years working flake by flake using fine dental tools.

“Every single little paint flake that had lifted up when it was pulled from that canvas during the theft had to be set down under the microscope, in a very painstaking and time-consuming process,” Birkmaier explained.

After the show at the Getty, the painting will have a homecoming back in the collection of the UAMA.

After the show at the Getty, the painting will have a homecoming back in the collection of the UAMA. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society/J. Paul Getty Trust

Then, Birkmaier spent months reattaching the edges of the painting to the border it was cut from, as well as filling segments of paint loss.

During CNN Style’s video interview with Birkmaier, he wore visored magnification glasses, working on that delicate retouching — or “in-painting” process — with “Woman-Ochre” on an easel behind him. At the time of the interview in mid-May, he estimated he had about 200 hours left to do.

Despite the fact that de Kooning used oil and house paints, it’s important to retouch artworks with materials like acrylic paint, which can be removed in the future if needed, Learner explained.

He said his team’s studies reveal the full extent of the thieves’ damage, down to the calcium that is normally in the lowest layer of the paint, but can be seen through their scans, among the web of cracks.

“(The theft) is a major part of its history, and will stay that way, forever.”

Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recoverywill be on view at the Getty Center from June 7 through August 28.