Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Repent and Return

Woman-Ochre in Silver City: We are getting closer and closer to the High Holy Days: Selichot begins this Saturday night. We approach the Days of Awe with thoughts ... and actions ... of repentance and return.

Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre, 1955

Which brings up the intriguing (wait; you'll see) topic of Art and Art Theft.

Did you see the 1999 movie The Thomas Crown Affair, with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo? (The 1968 original, with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, dealt with bank robbery, not art theft.)

How about 1966's How to Steal a Million, with Peter O'Toole and Audrey Hepburn? (Although the topic was art forgery, only loosely related to art theft.)

As what is left of Abq Jew's brain sorta recalls (but as IMDb confirms), neither the characters nor the themes in these flicks was particularly Jewish.

So Abq Jew proposes that we instead talk about Willen de Kooning (1904-1997), the  Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist who was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and moved to New York in 1927.

OK ... Willem de Kooning was not Jewish. But his wife Elaine Marie Catherine Fried de Kooning (1918 1989) sorta was. Still, Abq Jew hears you cry

Where are the Jews?

Ready? Here we go!

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William K Rashbaum (Jewish?) just published an article in The New York Times titled A de Kooning, a Theft and an Enduring Mystery. (It was hidden in the New York / Region section, so you can be excused if you missed it.)

The story begins:
Willem de Kooning completed “Woman-Ochre” in 1955. It depicts a defiantly naked figure facing the viewer, arms akimbo. At the time, de Kooning had a studio in Greenwich Village, where his artistic vision — not to mention his quiet charm and energetic drinking — made him a figure of renown on the art scene. 
Three years after de Kooning finished the painting, a benefactor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson bought it for the institution. And 27 years after that, in 1985, it was stolen — cut from its frame.

Whatever happened, Abq Jew hears you ask, to "Woman-Ochre"? The story continues:
It was finally recovered last month, and investigators are focusing on several theories. And one of them is, in its own way, extraordinary: 
They are trying to determine if the heist was engineered by a retired New York City schoolteacher — something of a renaissance man — who donned women’s clothing and took his son along as his accomplice, and then hung the masterwork in the bedroom of his own rural New Mexico home, where it remained. 
In other words, they are examining whether he stole a painting now valued at in excess of $100 million simply so he could enjoy it. 
The teacher, Jerome Alter, and his wife, Rita, both died at 81, he in 2012 and she earlier this summer.
<Read more here
The ranch-style home in Cliff, New Mexico, where a painting was found that would turn out to be "Woman-Ochre" by Willem de Kooning. (Photo: Grant County Assessor's Office)

And in case you're wondering - Cliff is 28.7 miles up US Highway 180 from Silver City, right by the intersection with US 293.

Want to know more about Jerome and Rita Alter? So did Benjamin Fisher, who last month published Bedroom of late Cliff couple held stolen de Kooning in the Silver City Daily Press.

The story begins:
As news broke of a near-priceless Willem de Kooning painting found behind the bedroom door of a house here in Grant County — more than 31 years after its theft from the University of Arizona — interest was piqued about the people whose door that was. 
Although the owners of Manzanita Ridge — who purchased the estate, discovered the painting and returned it to the University of Arizona — have declined to reveal the owners of the estate, the Daily Press has independently confirmed that the house belonged to two longtime residents of Cliff. 
By all accounts, Jerry and Rita Alter led quiet lives here in the area, with Rita known as a well-liked speech pathologist in the Silver Consolidated Schools, but saved grand adventures for far away. 
The Alters moved to the Cliff area sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, following Jerry’s retirement from a long career as a professional symphony musician and music teacher in the Big Apple, based on both his 2012 obituary in the Daily Press and interviews with people who worked with Rita. 
Jerry was highly educated at New York University, Brooklyn College and Columbia University. After his retirement here, though, few of those reached on Friday could offer much information about Jerry. 
Far more people knew Rita from her time at Silver Schools.
<Read more here>  
University of Arizona Museum of Art Curator Olivia Miller gets her first look Friday, Aug. 4, at Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” missing for 31 years. (Courtesy Photo)

Jennifer Olsen also published an article last month about this case, A (hundred) million dollar find: The tale of the missing de Kooning, in the Silver City Daily Press.

The story begins:
The long-missing and very valuable Willem de Kooning painting that turned up in Grant County last week was found hanging behind a bedroom door in Cliff. Manzanita Ridge co-owners Rick Johnson, Buck Burns, and David Van Auker, who purchased the estate, said it was one of the few paintings remaining on the home’s nail-studded walls. 
The 30-by-40-inch oil painting of a female figure caught their attention as lovely, but the men hadn’t gotten around to researching and pricing it, as they do with all the store’s merchandise, so the piece sat propped on the floor against a pile of chairs for a few hours. 
Immediately, it attracted attention and curiosity from customers — some of whom returned repeatedly to look at and discuss it. Although buying furniture — and sometimes art and antiques — for their store in downtown Silver City is their business, never had one of Manzanita Ridge’s pieces generated such excitement. 
Now authenticated as “Woman-Ochre” from Willem de Kooning’s Woman series, this particular painting was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art 31 years ago. 
The suspects were described at the time as a woman in her 50s, who would now be in her 80s, and a man in his 20s, who would now be in his 50s. 
The woman — fair skinned with glasses and a headscarf — distracted a guard while the man with curly hair, a mustache, and glasses cut the canvas from its frame and smuggled it from the museum under his clothing. 
Fast-forward 31 years, when “Woman-Ochre” wound up hanging in the master bedroom of a Cliff home, and then on the floor of Manzanita Ridge on Bullard Street. 
“I have to say it was so random and there was so little evidence that was left behind that it was really hard to imagine where it could be,” said UAMA Curator Olivia Miller, who discussed the painting frequently and knew the basic details of the crime as it happened. 
“Now, it seems like of course it was nearby and would turn up in an estate sale.”
How did "Woman-Ochre" wind up back at the UAMA? The story continues:
As the piece got even more attention in the store on Thursday, Aug. 3, Burns decided to hide it. “He puts a blanket on it and sticks it in our bathroom,” Van Auker said. 
That was when the serious web research began. As they read the story of the stolen de Kooning, they joked about having accidentally bought a $100 million painting. But then they realized they had to return the painting to U of A. 
The men said they never considered keeping it or trying to sell it for the hundreds of millions of dollars they guessed it was worth. “We didn’t even have to talk about it,” Johnson said. 
Van Auker called the art museum and a student receptionist transferred him to curator Olivia Miller. “Olivia was very calm and I was thinking to myself, ‘This woman is going to think I’m a nut job, that I picked up a print at Salvation Army and think it’s a de Kooning,’” Van Auker said. 
But Miller asked for photos and dimensions. “She wanted a full-on picture of the painting, then a picture of the signature and then she asked for a couple of pictures showing the paint texture,” Van Auker said. 
The dimensions they sent were just one inch off, consistent with the canvas being cut and stretched. “I was pretty confident,” Miller said. 
<Read more

So, Abq Jew hears you ask

Where is the Repentance?
Where is the Return?

None of us is perfect. But the Torah, the Talmud (see Living Talmud: Eilu Metzios), and the entirety of Jewish experience tell us that we Jews (we humans) are expected to try to do the right thing - even if (especially when) we fall short.

However, Manzanita Ridge co-owners Rick Johnson, Buck Burns, and David Van Auker - most likely, non-Jews - did the right thing. They returned the missing painting to its rightful owner.

Instinctively, without considering any other course of action.

As for Jerome and Rita Alter - most likely, Jews - who can say? They left this world without (publicly) revealing the provenance of the de Kooning painting in their New Mexico home.

The Alters did not (as far as we know) repent. Did they have anything to repent for? They certainly did not return the painting. Did they know it was lost?

Something to think about ....


D v silver city said...

HI, David Van Auker here, what a wonderful article. Makes you ponder and think. Very well written.

D v silver city said...

Thank you so much.