The Thief Collector: new documentary explores the 1985 theft of De Kooning painting

A documentary was premiered last week at the South by Southwest film festival exploring the puzzling theft of Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955) painting from the University of Arizona, Tuscon. The film, which is directed by Allison Otto, proposes that the couple may have stolen the work not for money, but simply because they loved the painting.

The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a man and a woman entered the University of Arizona’s museum, cut the de Kooning painting out of its frame, rolled it up, and quickly sped away in a red Toyota Supra. There was no attempt to stop the pair exiting the museum, and no chase ensued. Two years later, the painting was added to the FBI’s most wanted stolen artworks, but the culprits were never caught.

In 2017, employees from Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques attended the remote Arizona home of the recently deceased Rita Adler, whose husband Jerry had died in 2012. Behind the bedroom door hung the de Kooning painting, revealing that it had in fact been Jerry and Rita who had stolen the work years earlier. In Otto’s film, Rick Johnson, of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques said that it had not immediately been obvious how impressive this find was: “Truthfully, it was one of the ugliest paintings I’d ever seen in my life”, said Johnson. Despite this, Buck Burns and David Van Auker purchased the estate contents, and it was not until visitors to their shop suggested it was by de Kooning that they began to look into it.

Woman-Ochre had suffered some damage in the theft, and the Adlers had touched up some of the damaged areas with their own paint, and had also put a layer of varnish over it. Laura Rivers, a conservator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who has been restoring the work since its discovery in 2017, said: “It feels like a faint echo of what would’ve been done in a professional job,” however the application of varnish in this manner is now not a practice restorers would use.

Mark Stevens, who wrote the definitive de Kooning biography in 2004 along with Analynn Swan, was much blunter in his criticism of the Adlers’ restoration of the work: “Putting your own stupid paint on it? I mean, if you’re untrained? My God, who would do such a thing.”

The documentary explores the possible motivations the seemingly “nice” couple had for the heist, however given their lack of criminal history and the general way they seem to have presented themselves to friends and family, it is really not clear why they stole the work. Their nephew might have come to the only possible conclusion, describing the Adlers’ thinking as: “If I can’t be famous, at least I can be infamous”.

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