This famous Kooning painting has been stolen and missing for 31 years. Now the world can see it again

Baltimore businessman and architect Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. donated hundreds of paintings and sculptures to museums in memory of his late son, who died in a boating accident at age 13.

He wanted the students to learn, to be inspired by the work of art.

“I was never particularly interested in collecting for myself,” he told a reporter in 1974. “I think art should be where everyone can see it.”

But for the past 37 years, one of Gallagher’s most famous gifts – a painting by Willem de Kooning titled “Woman-Ocher” – has been largely hidden from view.

The oil on canvas artwork was stolen in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. It was discovered in 2017 in a small town in New Mexico, when an antique dealer read an Arizona Republic article about the theft and, realizing he had found the painting in his estate sale, contacted the newspaper and the university.

Now, after being released as evidence by the FBI and being researched and curated at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute, “Woman-Ochre” returns this summer.

The Getty Exhibition runs from June 7 to August 28 and focuses on scientific analysis and conservation treatment. Then, “Femme-Ocre” will return to the university art museum for an exhibition from October 8th.

The painting, estimated at over $100 million, was damaged in the robbery. The thief used a sharp object, possibly a box cutter, to cut “Ocher-Woman” from its frame. Then it was torn from its support. The oil paint had horizontal creases where it was rolled up. Two coats of varnish gave a yellowish tint. After the theft, someone stapled and screwed the painting into a commercial gold frame, leaving holes in the canvas.

“Honestly, it really hurts to look at the painting,” said Josh Goldberg, a former museum employee who saw “Woman-Ochre” at a press conference after her recovery in 2017.

He thought the paint looked dirty, shabby, as if the soul was gone.

For subscribers: $100 million from Kooning was recovered in 2017. New details paint picture of suspected thieves

He remembers the shock and anger he felt when the painting was stolen. The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a man and a woman walked into the museum shortly after it opened. The woman distracted the only security guard. The man wandered to the gallery on the second floor. Police believe he cut the painting from its wooden frame, rolled it up and stuffed it under his blue winter coat.

Goldberg was one of only four museum employees that day. He was in the bathroom, washing his hands, when he heard the security guard shout.

“The painting was stolen. They stole the painting! shouted the guard.

“Calm down,” Goldberg said. “What painting?

“The de Kooning,” said the guard.

The painting had been cut and torn from the canvas. The wooden frame was empty.

He never thought he would see “Ocher-Woman” again and thought he had probably been taken out of the country.

University police and the FBI followed a number of leads; none of them succeeded.

In the years since the painting was stolen, the works of Dutch-American artist de Kooning have exploded in value. A similar painting, titled “Woman III”, sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

How the stolen de Kooning was found

Thirty-one years after it was taken, “Woman-Ocher” was discovered in the home of two retired teachers, Jerry and Rita Alter, in rural Cliff, New Mexico. The Quirks were from New York and world travelers, who would have been familiar with a famous artist like de Kooning.

A 2018 report from the Arizona Republic revealed a new detail that placed the couple in Tucson the day before the flight.

A photo taken by relatives and provided to the newspaper shows the Quirks at a Thanksgiving dinner there in 1985, a day before the painting was stolen. The photo looks suspiciously like a composite sketch of the Thieves Police. The FBI did not say if the couple were the thieves.

Long lost painting recovered: Priceless Kooning Painting Recovered 31 Years After Being Ripped From University of Arizona Gallery

After the Quirks died, the owners of an antique store in nearby Silver City – David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson – bought the contents of the house for $2,000 in August 2017.

Van Auker did not acknowledge the work as coming from the modernist master, but he liked the painting and intended to hang the art in his guesthouse. So he offered the estate an additional $200 for the de Kooning, unaware that it had been stolen.

He kept it in his store, just for the day. Customers noticed the distinctive brush strokes and striking colors. One of them asked, “Is this a real de Kooning?”

Rick Johnson, left, David Van Auker and Buck Burns, owners of Manzanita Ridge, a furniture and antique store in Silver City, New Mexico.

Van Auker, typed “de Kooning” into his Internet browser. Up popped up an article that led him to report the discovery of the stolen artwork to the newspaper, university, and law enforcement authorities.

“Woman-Ocher” returned to Tucson under tight security a few days later. It was kept at the museum as evidence for the FBI for over a year, then transported to the Getty in California in mid-2019 for research and preservation.

The Getty undertook the project at no cost to the university in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit the de Kooning for a few months after the restorers had completed their work.

University officials said they chose the Getty because of its reputation as an international leader in art conservation. The Getty had previously embarked on a similar project to restore a Jackson Pollack painting titled “Mural,” which is owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

For Goldberg, the former museum employee, the theft was so traumatic that he still wonders if he wants to see the painting restored.

“Maybe at some point I’ll go by myself to take a look,” he said, “after the frenzy subsides.”

How to see ‘Woman-Ochre’

What: “Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning is a 30 by 40 inch oil painting he produced in the winter of 1954-55. The work is part of his famous Women series where the Dutch-American artist explored the female figure. Paintings of women shocked the art world due to their aggressive nature where the female form is characterized by large eyes, large mouths and exaggerated breasts.

History of painting: “Woman-Ocher” was exhibited at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery in 1955 before being purchased by Baltimore businessman Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. in 1957. The following year Gallagher donated “Woman-Ocher” and other works at the University. from the Arizona Museum of Art. The painting was valued at $6,000 at the time.

Estimated value: The university no longer assigns a value to the painting, but in 2015 the estimated value reached $160 million.

In Los Angeles: On display at the Getty Center from June 7 to August 28. See the Getty website for more information.

In Tuson: On display at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, from October 8. See the museum’s website for more information.

Republic reporter Anne Ryman was the first reporter to tell the story that “Woman-Ocher” had been salvaged, and wrote extensively about the board. A question about painting? You can join her at [email protected] or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Woman-Ocher: Kooning’s Famous Stolen Painting May Be Reviewed

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