Stolen Painting Returns to Tucson!

Stolen Painting Returns to Tucson!

Stolen Painting Returns to Tucson! 360 202 Tucson Young Professionals

How Tucson got on the Map for Art Theft, and How the Stolen Painting Made It’s Return – by Celine Lucas

Here he is, standing in front of Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre.  

He marvels at the beauty before him.  He has been picturing this moment for months and has even envisioned where he is going to hang this painting when they return home. She is going to be so ecstatic too. This is the biggest adventure they have had yet. His lips curl up into a smirk. He looks over his shoulder and stuffs his hand in his right pocket. 

His hands tremble as he raises the blade on the box cutter.

A bead of sweat begins to run down his temple. 

Wiping it away with the cuff of his sweater and pushing up on the bridge of his thick framed aviator glasses, he gulps and looks behind him once more. 

He uses the box cutter to slash through the perimeter of the painting.  When he tries to pull it away, it will not budge.  There was a second canvas that it was adhered to.  

Keep it cool. 

He begins to peel the painting from the frame and additional canvas, rolling the painting up as he goes and finally stuffs it under his grey Member’s Only jacket. 

He hurriedly walks away from the crime scene and descends the stairs where he entered minutes before. He approaches his girlfriend nonchalantly who is chatting with the security guard who should have been watching him. He chuckles to himself. 

He grabs his girlfriend by the waist, discretely cueing it was time to go. 

“It was lovely talking to you today,” she says with a smile on her face to the unsuspecting security guard. 

He smiles and nods to the security guards as they leave, hand in hand, never to be seen again. 

I cannot say for certain that the story I wrote above is exactly how the robbery occurred, but it is based on real events. Yes, this actually happened… and something even more interesting? It took place right here in Tucson on The University of Arizona Campus.

It was 9 A.M. the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. A couple walks into The University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) and the woman distracts the security guard while the man rushes upstairs.  He quickly cut the painting from the canvas and rejoined the woman no more than 10 minutes later. They left the museum and escaped with the precious Woman-Ochre painting by Willem de Kooning.

No fingerprints were left behind and there was no camera system at the time. The FBI has been involved in this case and it still has not been solved.


About Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning is considered a pioneer of “abstract expressionism” according to an article written by UAMA. This painting was one of a series beginning in 1950. This series was well known and revolutionary for the way it illustrated the human body.  

(Just for reference as to how famous de Kooning’s pieces are, in 2006, Woman 3, another de Kooning painting in the series, sold for $137.5 million)


How Did UArizona Get the Painting? 

The painting was donated to UArizona in 1958 by a man named Edward Joseph Gallagher, Jr. Gallagher was from Baltimore and worked as an architect.  He enjoyed visiting Arizona regularly and previously worked on a dude ranch near Tombstone, AZ. He had an inexplicable connection to the southwest and a deep love for Arizona.  

In November 1957, he read an article in Life Magazine called “The Great Kress Giveaway” discussing the Samuel H. Kress collection.  Kress donated his art collection across the country and UArizona had a loan of 25 paintings from the Kres collection. This act of philanthropy by Kress inspired Gallagher, as did his admiration for Arizona.  

After reading the article, Gallagher wrote a letter to UArizona president, Richard Harvill.  He wrote that he loves Arizona and mentioned the Life Magazine article. He asked Harvill if UArizona had any contemporary French paintings. The Dean at the College of Fine Arts responded to Gallagher and let him know UArizona did not have any contemporary French paintings in their collection. 

Six weeks later, Gallagher began to donate a small collection of 16 French paintings, starting what became the Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, honoring his only son who died in a boating accident just before his 14th birthday 20 years prior. Over the next 20 years, he expanded this collection at UAMA to 200 hand-picked works of art. The memorial collection were pieces of artwork specifically selected by Gallagher. He traveled around and thoughtfully chose artwork to donate to UArizona. Woman-Ochre was a part of this collection.

It is speculated that Gallagher initially saw Woman-Ochre at the Baltimore Museum of Art at an exhibition for Contemporary American Artists from the Martha Jackson Gallery. Gallagher wrote to Martha Jackson and pleaded with her to sell the painting.  After some resistance on Jackson’s side, she eventually sold Woman-Ochre to Gallagher, and he immediately donated Woman-Ochre to UAMA. 

Gallagher’s intent was to bring art to UArizona through these hand-picked paintings. He wanted the collection in the southwest and it was his intention that students who have not had the opportunity to travel, could see the artwork that had been created and displayed in big cities.


The Recovery and Restoration Process

After being stolen, the painting was not seen again for another 32 years until it was discovered in 2017 by a group of business owners named David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson. These men co-owned a furniture and antique store in Silver City, New Mexico. After receiving this painting in an estate sale purchase about 40 minutes from Silver City, in Cliff, NM, they put the items for sale in their shop. The items received were from a deceased couple named Jerry and Rita Alter. According to Olivia Miller, Museum Curator for the UAMA, the Alter’s were an “adventurous couple,” and Jerry Alter was known to be a “Sunday Painter,” as he proudly called himself.

Upon putting the painting up for sale, it drew a lot of attention; the men received inquiries if it was a genuine de Kooning and an offer of $200,000. Instead of selling it, Van Auker decided to do some further research on the painting and after a simple Google search, he found an article detailing the theft and realized the importance of the painting they possessed.  He called UAMA right away and reported the findings.  

Van Auker had to prove that it was the real painting by providing representatives at UAMA with photos.  With each photo UAMA got, the more excited they became.  They could see signs that the painting was previously rolled up, and the cut marks matched that of the skeleton like canvas that the thief carelessly tarnished years ago. 

The FBI arranged to pick up the painting from Van Auker and confirmed the legitimacy of the piece. After a two-hour inspection, they authenticated that this was the original Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning, stolen from UAMA in 1985.  While they were excited to see the painting again, they were dismayed in the condition of the painting. With the canvas being in such bad shape, UAMA needed a team of professionals to restore the painting to its former glory.

UAMA turned to the best and most renowned for restoration: The Getty Conservation Institute. Upon arrival, the painting “was in poor condition,” according to Laura Rivers, an Associate Paintings Conservator for the J. Paul Getty Museum. 

The rolling and dismantling of the painting had damaging and long-lasting effects such as horizontal cracking. There was a second layer of varnish applied by the thief, which emphasized the fragments of paint in between the layers where the paint lifted when it was rolled. The cut-out painting had been stretched and incorrectly stapled onto a new frame. 

The restoration process took 2.5 years.  Rivers worked diligently on all aspects of the restoration process and devoted a great deal of time (hundreds of hours) and care in taking each fragment of paint and putting it back in its intended space. The second layer of varnish was also removed.  The team used high tech machines to determine the material used so the restoration was completed accurately.  

Ulrich Birkmaier ensured the painting was put back in the original frame and took on a process called “inpainting,” which means to “repair or restore (a painting) by repainting obliterated areas” (Merriam-Webster). As Birkmaier noted in the podcast episode, “it really took a village” to get the painting as close as possible to its original form.


The Future of Woman-Ochre

As it stands today, you might not even know what kind of history this painting has endured – and that is exactly the point in professional restoration and conservation, and thanks to an ethical person such as Van Auker. After being displayed at the Getty Center, the painting will make its way back to UAMA for the public to view through a special exhibit beginning October 8, 2022. After the exhibition, the painting will be “reinstalled in the permanent collection galleries where it always should’ve been” said Lisa Miller with UAMA in the podcast episode referenced below. 

Per the article written by Alexis Blue, UArizona’s Director of News content and Communications: “A documentary film called “The Thief Collector” delves more into the Alters and the brazen heist. The film will be screened on campus at Centennial Hall on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.”

Woman-Ochre will be on exhibit at UAMA from 10/8 – 5/20. 

UAMA is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday. General admission is $8; seniors and groups of 10 or more are $6 per person. Admission is free for museum members, children, university students and employees, active military personnel, American Alliance of Museums members, and visitors with a SNAP card or tribal ID.

The first vignette was my  adaptation from the story told by the Getty Museum in their YouTube video: Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery. The above article’s information was pulled from a podcast episode from The Getty’s SoundCloud page highlighting an interview with Olivia Miller, Museum Curator for the UAMA and Ulrich Birkmaier, Senior Conservator of Paintings with the Getty.  I would also like to give credit to the following websites that were extremely helpful in my research: this website by UAMA,  this article with CNBC, and this article written by Alexis Blue with UArizona News.


Article by Celine Lucas
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About the Author:

Celine received her Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 2017 and her Master of Education in Human Relations from Northern Arizona University in 2018. She is currently attending Arizona State University to pursue her Master of Science in Technical Communication.  Celine is a Senior Enrollment Counselor for The University of Arizona Online and writes blogs and articles for Tucson Young Professionals Arts and Culture team. In her free time, she enjoys writing, editing, doing makeup, singing and spending time with her friends, husband and dogs.