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How a Museum Is Protecting the $100M de Kooning Painting 37 Years After It Was Stolen

November 02, 2022 4:56 AM | Office IFCPP (Administrator)

Reposted from AZ Central

Six years before a valuable Willem de Kooning painting was stolen in 1985, the director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art warned that security needed to be beefed up at the small museum.

But university administrators, who have since retired, didn't act on those warnings, according to memos obtained by The Arizona Republic as part of a public-records request. 

Museum officials on May 8, 1979, requested that additional police officers be assigned to the building, cautioning that:

"The museum's good fortune in avoiding major theft or vandalism so far is strictly a matter of luck," the memo said. "As the art museum becomes better known, this luck will quickly dissipate."

"Woman-Ochre" is now back at the museum after being discovered in a New Mexico estate sale in 2017.  And the university is once again faced with safeguarding a treasure even more famous and more valuable than when it was stolen.

In the years the painting went missing, works by the Dutch-American artist de Kooning exploded in value.  University officials are no longer publicly releasing a value, though as recently as 2015 "Woman-Ochre" was valued at up to $160 million. 

$100M de Kooning painting returned:How a museum is honoring those who brought it home

The 1979 memo which was copied to then-UA President John Paul Schaefer, requested that two members of the campus security force be on duty during operating hours as a "minimal ounce of prevention." 

But when the de Kooning painting was stolen in 1985, it was common to have only one University of Arizona police officer on duty at the museum, according to subsequent memos. 

When the theft occurred, it was the day after Thanksgiving and only one campus security officer was present at the museum. Two student workers were on duty. But no staffer was in the second-floor gallery when "Woman-Ochre," was cut from its wooden frame. Like many small museums at the time, there was no video-camera system to capture the theft.

Museum officials acknowledged security lapses. The museum's director, Peter Bermingham, pushed university administrators for more funding for more security officers, TV cameras and gallery attendants.

In a memo written a few days after the theft, he reminded then-Provost Nils Hasselmo of "several recent conferences" about the need to improve security that had been held with "various university officials (prior to the theft)." 

Failure to take action could jeopardize the museum's ability to borrow art from other museums for special exhibits, he warned, and could hurt the museum's ability to get donations.

Hasselmo initially rejected the request, citing "strapped" resources for the current year in a December 20, 1985 memo. He suggested the museum curtail hours instead.  Bermingham replied that cutting back hours would have no effect on security quality during open hours. 

Hasselmo later agreed to a modified proposal. 

Seven months after the theft, in June 1986, the museum installed a new security system. Upgrades included a $24,000 closed-circuit television system, as well as hiring two full-time security guards and several part-timers, rather than relying on University Police.

The administrators named in the 1980s memos have long since retired; Hasselmo and Bermingham are no longer alive. Schaefer, the former university president from 1971-1982, said in a recent interview with The Republic that he didn't recall memos related to museum security. 

"That was a long time ago," he said, adding he was no longer president when the 1985 theft occurred.

A brazen, 'theft of opportunity'

The "Woman-Ochre" theft remains infamous in museum security circles. 

On Nov. 29, 1985, a man and a woman walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art as the building opened. 

It was a holiday week with only a few staffers on hand. 

Police believe the woman distracted the single security officer while the man walked upstairs and cut the valuable de Kooning painting out of its frame. Unobserved, he rolled up the canvas, stuffed it under his winter jacket and the couple fled in a rust-colored sports car. 

John Barelli, who oversaw security at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Artfor 30 years, described the de Kooning crime as a "theft of opportunity." 

"It was an opportunity and — boom — they took it," he said in a recent interview. 

University police enlisted the help of the FBI and released a composite sketch of the suspects. But within months, the investigation hit a dead end.

The painting vanished for 31 years, until it was discovered in 2017 in the home of a deceased, elderly New Mexico couple in an estate sale. 

When "Woman-Ochre" was recovered, the university covered the cost of installing a new camera system, said Olivia Miller, the museum's interim director and curator.

The museum increased security in preparation for the painting's return to exhibit, she said. She declined to discuss security costs but said ongoing costs, such as security staffing, are part of the museum's annual budget and are supported by a combination of funding sources, including state funding, museum endowments, and admission fees. The museum has a total annual budget of about $1 million. 

She declined to discuss the increased security measures except for one detail that is visibly apparent: 

"Woman-Ochre" and its original wooden frame are encased in a clear, acrylic display case using museum-quality material known as Optium Museum Acrylic.


"It might not always be in a case forever," Miller said. "But we think that just given its history, given what it's been through, given what the museum has been through, it's a step we just needed to take."

National security experts say acrylic cases, or glass, over paintings are increasingly common, especially on smaller paintings that thieves could try to smuggle out.

One of the world's most famous paintings, the "Mona Lisa," on exhibit at the Louvre Museum in Paris, is protected by bulletproof glass. The protection came in handy last summer when a man disguised as an old woman jumped out of a wheelchair and smeared cake across the glass

More recently, climate protesters threw soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London’s National Gallery, causing minor damage to the frame but leaving the glass-covered painting unharmed. 

UA museum officials said it was important to display "Woman-Ochre" in the original wooden frame the painting was cut from in 1985. That simple frame wouldn't accommodate an insert of acrylic or glass into the frame so they had to encase both the painting and frame in acrylic. 

Common security measures

The Republic contacted three national experts on museum security, who aren't involved in the university's security plans but are familiar with how museums safeguard their paintings.

Steve Keller, a museum security expert based in Florida, who helped write national security recommendations for museums, said the protection for paintings has changed dramatically since the 1980s. The de Kooning theft "would have been much harder to pull off" with current security technology, he said.

Brazen thefts, like the de Kooning heist, aren't common, according to Rob Layne, vice president of Layne Consultants International in Denver. But to prevent them, museums typically have a range of protections. 

Here are security measures commonly used at museums today:

Video surveillance, digital video and cameras with monitoring capabilities are some of the biggest advancements in museum security.  Video analytics are computer software that allows museums to monitor and analyze video surveillance. The painting and the area surrounding the painting are programmed into the software. If this image is disturbed by someone getting too close to the painting or touching it, an alarm goes off. 

Barelli, the New York City security consultant, said he would place cameras in places where they were visible to visitors — to act as a deterrent against theft or vandalism— and also in locations where they weren't visible to capture any attempted vandalism or theft.

Radio-frequency identification, known as RFID technology for short, uses radio waves to keep track of paintings, sculptures or rare books. Tiny RFID tags are affixed to the art. An alarm triggers if someone moves a painting from its location. 

Global Position Devices are often used when art is loaned to other museums or has to travel. A tracking device attached to the painting's wooden crate sends a satellite signal that is processed by a receiver. Museum security can see the location of the GPS device and its movements, allowing them to track the art in real-time.

GPS was used to track "Woman-Ochre" in September when the painting traveled 500 miles back to Tucson from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it had been undergoing restoration. Museum officials also kept in contact by text and phone with a museum staffer who rode along with the painting in the truck. The truck was further escorted by two SUVs filled with a half-dozen officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

Security staff, visitors and volunteers are a critical part of museum security. Experts say it doesn't matter how much an organization spends on technology if the staffing structure isn't there to support it. In-house security is common at many museums. Contract security guards are brought in as supplements for special events when more people are milling through the galleries. 

At an evening reception to celebrate "Woman-Ochre" on Oct. 7, The Republic counted at least four security guards — dressed in elegant suits and equipped with earpieces —  in the first-floor gallery with the painting. More security guards lingered outside the gallery's entrance and exit.

At least two University of Arizona police officers were on hand in the lobby, dressed in uniforms and bulletproof vests. 

On that evening, "Woman-Ochre" wasn't going anywhere.

And when the exhibit opened to the public the next day, there was an added level of protection. 

"Woman-Ochre" was already behind an acrylic glass case. 

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