Restorers discovered something the thieves had done to the painting, featured in a WFAA documentary, after violently snatching it from an Arizona gallery.
LOS ANGELES — After nearly three years of work, a team of curators from J. Paul Getty Museum have successfully restored and repaired a painting that was violently stolen in 1985 and are preparing to return it to the public this month for the first time in 37 years.
“When it first arrived at the Getty, all you saw was the horrific damage to the board – which was very bad,” said Ulrich Birkmaier, Principal Conservator of Paintings at the Getty. “Now he has come back to life. It is truly a resurrection. It’s very satisfying to be able to bring it back.
The Getty, located in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, isn’t just a world-class art museum, it’s also something of an art hospital.
“Yeah, you could say that actually,” Birkmaier told the WFAA. “Incidentally, we use some of the same tools that surgeons might use – or dentists.”
For three years he led a team working patiently to save an expensive painting called Ocher Woman. Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning painted it in 1954-1955. It remains one of the finest examples of Abstract Expressionism in American history.
“The amount of damage at first glance seemed a bit overwhelming,” Birkmaier told WFAA at the Southern California lab.
In a 2018 documentaryWFAA detailed the savage theft and explained for the first time why two married teachers in rural New Mexico are suspected of stealing the painting.
“I was just cleaning up the details and that changed everything,” said Ron Roseman, a former Dallas resident who is Rita Alter’s nephew.
She and her husband Jerry Alter named Roseman as executor. In 2017, after Rita’s death and five years after Jerry’s death, Roseman was almost done liquidating their estate when the FBI called.
“They were inquiring about a painting they found in my aunt’s house,” Roseman recalled in the WFAA documentary.
The Alters house in Cliff, NM was full of art. But the FBI agent wanted to know where his Aunt Rita got a specific painting that she kept hidden behind her bedroom door in a cheap gold frame.
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The FBI said the painting was Ocher Woman and was stolen the day after Thanksgiving in 1985 from the prestigious University of Arizona Art Museum.
The thieves cut the canvas out of the frame, rolled it up – cracking the oil paint and damaging it even more – then fled.
“Thirty-two years ago, this painting was valued at $400,000. Now we’re talking about $150 million,” University of Arizona Police Chief Brian Seastone said in a 2018 interview with the WFAA.
Investigators said the thieves were male and female, but may have been in disguise.
“I can’t imagine they would [be involved]. It wasn’t the aunt and uncle I knew,” Roseman said.
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But circumstantial evidence began to pile up.
It turns out that Jerry and Rita were big fans of Willem de Kooning.
WFAA can place Quirks in Tucson, Arizona – near the art museum – the night before the flight. Ron Roseman has a photo of himself with Quirks and other relatives at Thanksgiving dinner about 12 hours before the crime.
Also, Jerry and Rita owned a red sports car, as witnesses said, had driven away from the museum after the crime. And perhaps the most critical piece of evidence, the stolen painting, was found behind their bedroom door after they died.
“As an investigator, an art crime investigator, I’m 96-98% sure they were involved,” said Bob Wittman, a retired FBI agent in Philadelphia who launched and led the team. FBI Art Crimes National.
And Wittman said he thinks the Quirks could have been involved in more thefts.
“There are cases where individuals commit shoplifting and they steal an item. But in the case of the Quirks, because of the way they did it and they had the guts to go out there and do it, I don’t think that’s the only thing they’ve ever taken,” he continued.
Yet no other stolen items have ever been linked to Jerry or Rita Alter.
Even though they didn’t steal from Kooning’s Ocher Womanthey knew what they had and hid it behind their bedroom door for years.
Several years after the Quirks died, the FBI said the theft of Ocher Woman remains an open file.
“I would never risk disputing what the FBI says, but I can tell you that I highly doubt there are any active agents currently working on leads involving this case,” Wittman explained.
When asked what it would take for the FBI to finally close the case after 37 years, Wittman added, “Closure is basically a memo saying no further investigation is needed. So at this point, since they don’t have a suspect, a squad supervisor will say, “Why don’t you close the case?”
Additionally, Wittman said, if the case was still open, the painting would be withheld as evidence by law enforcement, and not sent to the Getty in 2018 for restoration.
“The thieves probably rolled up the painting, most likely from the front. And put it under his cloak [to escape]”, Birkmaier said.
It makes him cringe to think of the damage done during the theft.
The paint began to peel immediately and deep lines of missing colors emerged on the canvas.
But Birkmaier said his team at the Getty discovered something else while restoring it – something the thieves had done to the blackboard.
“They dealt with some of the damage that had occurred as a result of them violently removing the paint from that frame,” he said.
In other words, they tried to touch it up and undo the damage they inflicted.
“They actually put a big piece of canvas on the back of the canvas to support the tear areas,” Birkmaier explained. “They filled in those tears and tried to paint them in, touch them up a bit.”
Laura Rivers, Associate Conservator of Paintings at the Getty, had the $160 million painting under a microscope for a year and a half.
“So while I was sort of laying the paint down in the areas where the damage is still visible and very clear, I was also gathering the small fragments nearby to clarify the image,” she said.
Rivers collected countless spots of original paint, almost invisible without a microscope, which will never return to the canvas, she said, but will instead be kept for study.
So after three years of meticulous restoration at the Getty, the original damage is now hard to see from a few feet away.
The cut canvas has been re-glued to a new stretcher and the deep lines of broken paint have been carefully blurred.
“I’ve learned in this field that many miracles can happen,” Rivers told WFAA at the Getty. “I think we were able to push this chart further than I initially expected. It’s a pretty catastrophically damaged painting.
This month, Ocher Woman is on public display for the first time in 37 years.
It’s at the Getty from June 7 to August 22. Then the array will be rendered to the University of Arizona.
The Getty spent “several hundred hours” restoring the painting, Birkmaier said.
He still has a little work to do before Ocher Woman going to a gallery next month. Birkmaier always fills in the missing paint with a small tool and applies one dot at a time.
“Some elements of the conservation process are a bit like plastic surgery, in that the best work is the one you don’t really know,” he added.
Yet some scars remain and will always remain.
But what happened to Ocher Woman – theft, damage and restoration – are now part of the provenance of this painting. It is a beautiful work of American abstract art with a history now as rich as the work itself.
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