Recovered de Kooning painting back in the spotlight

PHOENIX — More than 30 years after it was brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum, a painting by Willem de Kooning reportedly worth $100 million is going on display back where it all began.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson is throwing a fundraiser and homecoming party of sorts for "Woman-Ochre" on Sunday before it gets whisked away for months of restoration work. For some who worked at the museum when the painting was stolen in 1985, the celebration still seems surreal.

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Lee Karpiscak, who was the curator of collections at the time, recalls the entire staff feeling devastated. "We tried to be realistic about it," she said. "All these scenarios go through your head and make you crazy. We certainly hoped it would be returned."

It was the morning after Thanksgiving when authorities said a man and a woman showed up at the museum. A security guard and students working the front desk were the only ones there, according to Karpiscak. Police said the woman distracted the guard with small-talk while the man cut the painting right out of the frame, leaving edges of the canvas still attached. The entire heist lasted around 15 minutes.

"How do you eat your Thanksgiving dinner knowing you're going to steal a painting the next day?" Karpiscak said.

There was no security camera system set up then. The next few days were a flurry of activity as FBI agents interviewed the entire staff. But no significant leads developed. Occasionally the museum would get calls from people claiming to know where the painting was.

But Karpiscak said they were callers looking to get back at someone they didn't like. On the theft's 30th anniversary, the museum displayed the empty frame at a news conference in hopes of generating tips.

Then in 2017, a furniture and antiques dealer in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. When researching the piece, he discovered an article about the theft. He notified the museum. A conservator with the university found it to be a perfect match.

The furniture dealer had gotten the painting from the estate of Jerry and Rita Alter. The art work had been hanging in their Cliff, New Mexico, home. Relatives also discovered a photo of the couple taken Thanksgiving Day 1985 in Tucson. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have never publicly called them suspects.

Jill McCabe, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Phoenix, said an investigation remains ongoing so the agency could not comment.

Because of the investigation, it was not until last November that the FBI fully released the painting back to the museum, curator Olivia Miller said.

"We had it here but we weren't allowed to move it or display it or do anything like that," Miller said.

She said museum staffers have been overwhelmed "in a good way" with the anticipation of the painting being on view again — even if just for a day. And of course, there will be plenty of safeguards around the painting.

"Our security is much different than it was 1985," Miller said. "Certainly at this event, we will definitely have extra eyes."

The oil painting, which was donated to the museum in 1958, is one in an iconic series by the Dutch-American artist that explores the figure of a woman. The piece features the abstract expressionist's signature broad paint strokes, depicting various colours across the female body.

De Kooning died in East Hampton, New York, in 1997 at the age of 92. He was part of the influential New York School of artists that also included Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

After Sunday, the painting will go to the Getty Center in Los Angeles where experts in art conservation and scientific analysis can work on fully restoring it. One of the main issues is if it's possible to reattach the canvas to the fragments left behind when the perpetrator sliced the painting with a blade, Miller said.

"Because the cut is so clean, from my understanding, it makes it more difficult to reattach it," she said.

Miller said once everything is completed, the Getty plans to exhibit the painting next year. The plan is for the canvas to return to Arizona in the fall of 2020.

"I think the emotions will really hit when it comes back from the Getty and it's hanging here for a long time," Miller said.

She wishes the museum director at the time of the theft, Peter Bermingham, were still alive to witness its return. Bermingham died in 2000.

"In the initial interviews...he said he was hopeful," Miller said. "He thought we would eventually recover it and he was absolutely right."

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Follow Terry Tang on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ttangAP

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