The bizarre return of a stolen $160m painting

Did two ordinary school teachers steal a famous painting and hang it in their bedroom for 32 years? Maybe.

In November 1985, an unknown man and woman entered the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) in Tucson.

The bizarre return of a stolen $160m painting

She distracted a security guard while he cut Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre from its frame and tucked it under his clothes.

The oil painting disappeared for the next 32 years.

De Kooning’s work is valuable

Woman-Ochre, part of the Dutch-American expressionist’s Woman series, was worth $400k when donated to the museum in 1958. Today, it’s worth ~$160m.

In 2016, entertainment mogul David Geffen sold de Kooning’s Interchange to hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin for $300m, then the highest price ever paid for a painting.

But experts say famous art is hard to fence. And as James Ratcliffe — director of stolen art database Art Loss Register — told NBC News, “You can’t put it on your wall.”

Or can you?

In 2017, an antique store paid $2k for items from the estate of a deceased couple in Cliff, New Mexico. Among them was Woman-Ochre.

Clues point to Jerry and Rita Alter, two retired teachers, stealing the painting while visiting relatives, then hanging it on their bedroom wall until they died.

Why? No one knows, but Jerry Alter once wrote a story about a woman and her granddaughter who steal and hide an emerald where only they can see it.

The recovered painting needed help

The theft and cheap varnishes, likely applied by the thieves, had damaged it. So, Woman-Ochre went to Los Angeles’ Getty Conservation Institute.

There, an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scan — a nondestructive test to determine an object’s chemistry — revealed which pigments and materials de Kooning used.

Conservators also:

  • Used a microscope to reattach areas where paint had lifted or flaked
  • Removed the varnishes
  • Filled in lost paint with reversible conservation pigments (which can be removed if needed)
  • Reunited the painting with its cut canvas

Woman-Ochre is currently on display at the Getty Museum, its first public exhibition since the heist, and will return to the UAMA this fall.

BTW: If this story fascinated you, the Alters are the subject of the 2022 documentary The Thief Collector.

Topics: Entertainment

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