Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” has been safely locked away in the University of Arizona Museum of Art’s climate-controlled vault since 2017.
The painting, said to be worth about $100 million, was stolen from the art museum in 1985. Two years ago, a New Mexico antiques dealer called the museum to tell them he had the art piece.
It will come out of the vault next month and head to Los Angeles, where the difficult, slow job of restoring it will be undertaken by the experts at the J.Paul Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute.
While the FBI continues to investigate the crime, the UA Museum of Art no longer needs to hold it as evidence. That release came in November, and there has been a flurry of activity since, as the museum staff researched who best to restore it, says Olivia Miller, the museum’s curator of exhibitions.
When stolen, the 40-by-30-inch painting was cut out of the frame and rolled up tightly so that it wouldn’t be visible under a coat. Then it hung on a door in a house. In the process, it suffered a lot of damage, says Miller.
Conservators were brought in to make proposals on the restoration, and the Getty was tapped to do the prestigious job.
“Everybody we met would have been a wonderful team, but the Getty has world-renowned experts there, and they are doing all this cutting-edge research. And their mission to share that with the wider conservation community and the public sets them apart.”
What needs to be done to bring it back to as-close-as-to-original condition is dizzying.
“We want the painting reattached to the remnants left behind (in the frame),” Miller says. “That’s a primary concern. We’ll be realistic about what’s possible and what isn’t, but we hope it can be done. There’s a lot of cracking in the piece — it was cut and pulled from its wax lining.”
Microscopic bits of paint are barely hanging on and need to be stabilized, she adds, but not until research and analysis are done to determine what kind of materials de Kooning used. “Charcoal and house paint are possible ones,” says Miller.
The whole process will take about 18 months. It will go on display at the Getty before it is returned to the UA Museum of Art.
Recovering “Woman-Ochre” was a dream that most never expected to be realized.
But in 2017, David Van Auker, an antiques dealer in Silver City, New Mexico, called Miller to tell her he had the painting. It was among the items he purchased at an estate sale at the home of Jerry and Rita Alter, both deceased. It had been stapled to a board, framed, and hung on the back of a bedroom door.
Van Auker didn’t know what he had, but when a few customers told him they thought it was a de Kooning, he discovered it was stolen and called the museum to let them know it had been found.
When the painting was first recovered, the sense was that restoring it would carry a hefty price tag.
But the Getty does not charge. The UA Museum of Art, however, is raising money to cover the continuing care of the de Kooning.
If you want to catch a glimpse of the painting before it heads out, and to help cover the cost of care, there will be a public viewing and reception at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $100 for museum members; $125 for all others. The museum is in the UA Fine Arts Complex, North Park Avenue and East Speedway.
To make a reservation, call 626-7187 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.