A Stolen $160M Painting Was Found In This Couple’s Home – And That Was Only The Start Of The Mystery

The art industry is worth billions. Paintings and sculptures by famed artists can fetch millions upon millions of dollars and only increase in value with each passing year. Given the wealth at stake, it’s unsurprising that the art world draws the attention of antique collectors, billionaire art enthusiasts as well as opportunistic thieves. Each year, despite extensive securty measures by the world’s art institutions, elaborate art heists are carried out resulting in the theft of artworks that are worth small fortunes. Throughout history, numerous thefts have rocked the art world and gained worldwide publicity. Indeed, numerous high-profile thefts still baffle authorities. Pablo Picasso’s work, La pigeon aux petits pois, has yet to be recovered after it was stolen in 2010 from the City of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art. The painting is reportedly worth a staggering $123 million. This is the bizarre and unbelievable story surrounding one particularly valuable missing piece of work. Back in 1985, a painting was stolen from a Tucson museum. The awe-inspiring mystery surrounding the stolen painting would remain unsolved for 32 long years. But after the death of a quiet, unassuming and seemingly ordinary elderly couple, mind-boggling details would soon come to light. The Atlers had housed the stolen artwork in their home, hanging the million-dollar artwork in their bedroom. Here, we take a look at the amazing story behind the couple’s acquisition of the stolen painting. Could it be that this mild-mannered couple were the masterminds behind one of the world’s most mysterious art heists?

Early Beginnings

Jerry and Rita Alter arrived in the small town of Cliff, NM, towards the end of the 1970s. Supposedly, Jerry had been employed as a teacher in New York City before moving west to enjoy his years of retirement. The self-published author also had a love for adventure, art and travel.

Early Beginnings

A Pair of Travellers

Indeed, according to the biographical profile in one of his many books, Jerry was an avid and adventurous traveler. He had ventured to over 140 countries and had set foot on all seven continents by the time he reached his 80th birthday. The man was described as quiet and mild-mannered by those who knew him few would have suspected the schoolteacher had a hidden and unlikely identity.

A Pair of Travellers

Pleasant Rita

His beloved wife, Rita, also had an educational background. She’d found work in the local schooling system working as a speech pathologist after the couple later relocated to New Mexico. The Alters went on to have a seemingly ordinary and quiet life or so it was thought.

Pleasant Rita

Kept To Themselves

Jerry and Rita Alter kept to themselves. They were a lovely couple, neighbors in the small New Mexico town of Cliff would later tell reporters. But no one knew much about them. They may have been hiding a decades-old secret, pieces of which are now just emerging.

Kept To Themselves

A Mysterious Secret

With their two children, Barbara and Joseph, having left long home, the Alter parents prepared to settle into a quiet retirement in Cliff. According to those who knew Jerry and Rita, the pair were a pleasant but a notoriously private couple. Few could have suspected that Jerry and Rita were hiding a million dollar secret within the walls of their home.

A Mysterious Secret

A Sad Passing

In 2012 Jerry sadly passed due to natural causes at the age of 81. Five years later, Rita also passed away. The deceased couple’s nephew Ron Roseman, was left in charge of the couple’s assets and estate. In the months following Rita’s passing, Roseman put the Alter’s Cliff home up for sale and invited local antiques dealers to have a look at the home’s contents.

A Sad Passing

The Peculiar Painting

David Van Auker, a dealer from the nearby town of Silver City, walked through the Alters’ home and soon found himself drawn to one particular piece of art. A mid-20th century work featuring an abstract interpretation of a nude lady. The painting had been hung in Jerry and Rita’s bedroom, a strange place for such an interesting piece to be viewed.

The Peculiar Painting

The Discovery

Ultimately, Van Auker forked out $2,000 for the estate’s assets, including the painting that had caught his attention. When the dealer took the piece back to Silver City, he was in for a startling discovery. The town is home to an unusually large population of local and revered artists; some of whom soon found their way into Van Auker’s antiques store.

The Discovery

Was it Real?

After one eagle-eyed visitor spotted the Atlers’ painting on display, he remarked that it appeared to be an authentic piece by the famed Dutch artist, Willem de Kooning. The abstract expressionist from the Netherlands was world famous. To the antique dealer’s shock, it was discovered that and original Kooning could fetch tens of millions of dollars.

Was it Real?

The Search for the Truth

Van Auker was quick to dismiss the seemingly outlandish claims. But when other customers made the same remark regarding the work, the dealer began to wonder exactly what he had indeed acquired. The dealer soon took to the internet to discover more about the piece and the supposed creator, what he soon discovered left him truly amazed.

The Search for the Truth

The Unknown Couple

During his hours of research, Van Auker stumbled upon an internet article about a burglary that had taken place at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, AZ, in 1985.

The Unknown Couple

Early Hours Of The Morning

In the early morning hours of November 29, an unknown couple, a man and a woman, arrived at the museum doors just as a local security guard was unlocking the entrance to admit a member of staff to enter the premises.

Early Hours Of The Morning

A Quick Distraction

Since the museum was about to be opened to the public, the guard did not stop the mysterious couple from entering the building. In fact, the guard struck up a conversation with the woman, thought to be around 60 years old.

A Quick Distraction

Distracted

While the guard was distracted by the woman, the man, who appeared to be in his twenties, made his way up to the third floor of the building.

Distracted

The Steal

After mere minutes, however, the man reappeared and he and the woman made a hasty exit. Suspicious of the couple’s behavior, the guard went to investigate the museum. It appears the guard was the only security personal on the premises at the time of the incident.

The Steal

No Surveillance Cameras

At the time, the museum had no surveillance cameras. Police found no fingerprints. One witness described seeing a rust-color sports car drive away but didn’t get the license plate number.

No Surveillance Cameras

World’s Most Prominent Painter

De Kooning, who died in 1997, was one of the most prominent painters of the midcentury abstract expressionist movement. “Woman III,” another painting in the same series as “Woman-Ochre,” sold for $137.5 million in 2006. The works of de Kooning remain among the most marketable in the world.

World’s Most Prominent Painter