In August 2017 an antique dealer discovered a painting in the home of a deceased New Mexico couple. The piece of art turned out to be worth millions of dollars but the mystery would only become more compelling as investigators delved deeper into the bizarre story…
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.
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.
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.
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.nThey may have been hiding a decades-old secret, pieces of which are now just emerging.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It Had Vanished
He soon discovered that an incredibly valuable painting – Woman-Ochre by de Kooning – had been taken from its frame. The couple had vanished and the identities of the two thieves would soon spark a mystery that would stump the local police for the next three decades.
For 32 long years the mystery of the stolen painting would remain unsolved by local authorities. This would be one of the biggest mysteries in the world of art.
The Investigation Continues
Fast forward to August of 2017, Van Auker soon realized that the stolen painting and mysterious find could be the very same painting. The dealer telephoned the Tucson museum and they anxiously agreed to investigate whether the piece was indeed the original. An overwhelmed Van Auker lay awake that night, protecting the artwork with a loaded gun.
Verifying the Painting
The curator of the museum and several other experts soon travelled to Silver City. The professionals were truly in disbelief when they first viewed the piece. A series of tests were soon carried out. Kooning’s signature was analysed by a handwriting expert while chemicals were applied to the canvas in order to gauge the estimated age of the painting.
The Unbelievable Truth
The experts were able to make the confirmation – this was indeed the missing painting. Somehow, to the shock of the authorities, the unassuming and elderly Alters had landed up with the stolen artwork hanging on their own bedroom wall. By the time the painting was discovered, it was valued at a whopping $160 million. The experts were desperate to uncover the possibly sinister story behind the painting…
Not What it Seemed
Over the course of the following months, details surfaced suggesting that the quiet couple were not quite as innocent as they seemed to be. The pair seemed to enjoy an incongruously expensive lifestyle of world travel and leisure, despite supposedly earning the modest income of schoolteachers. When the couple passed, family members were amazed to discover that the Alters had over a million dollars in their savings account.
Thieves in Disguise
Their amazed nephew, Roseman, simply believed that his aunt and uncle had made some good investments and were careful with their money. But the couple’s inexplicable wealth wasn’t the only suspicious thing about the pair. Reportedly, in August 2018 a photograph surfaced that confirmed Jerry and Rita were in Tucson – the scene of the crime – for Thanksgiving in 1985, just one day before the museum was robbed.
“I guess I figured they were very frugal,” their nephew, Ron Roseman, told WFAA. “They were just nice people,” he said. Naive or covering for them? What would the outcome be?
The Mystery Unfolds
Inquisitive journalists from The New York Times soon discovered that the couple had owned a red sports car similar to the one seen driving away from the scene of the crime all those years ago. Perhaps most damningly, both of the Alters’ usually detailed journals were found suspiciously empty regarding their Thanksgiving plans that year.
Was it Them?
Many believe that a police sketch bears a striking resemblance to the couple at the time of the theft. Yet some have suggested that the male – thought to have been in his twenties – could have been the Rita and Jerry’s son Joseph, with a disguised Jerry taking on the role of the female suspect.
Another disturbing detail would surface regarding the couple’s son, Joseph. Neighbors who knew the Atlers said Joseph, who would have been 23 at the time of the robbery, suffered troubling psychological problems and spent most of his life in and out of mental institutions.
Art Imitating Life
Another suspicious clue came in the form of a short story that Jerry had published back in 2011. The plot outlined the story of a young woman and her granddaughter who befriended a security guard – only to to steal an emerald jewel from under the unsuspecting guard’s nose. Crucially, the short story ends with the jewel on display where only the thieves could see it. The piece of ‘fiction’ strangely resembled the supposed tale of Jerry and Rita’s heist: they hung the million dollar painting in their bedroom, far from prying eyes.
Despite the mounting evidence, it has yet to be confirmed whether the elderly couple were indeed responsible for the theft of the million-dollar painting. “It’s an ongoing FBI investigation; the case is still open,” Gina Compitello-Moore, the museum’s marketing manager, told artnet News, she declined to speculate on the deceased couple’s involvement in the unsolved crime.
“I can’t believe Rita would be involved in anything like that,” Mark Shay, one of Rita’s former coworkers, told The Post. Those who knew the couple have had difficulty believing the couple could have pulled off such a daring heist. One more innocent explanation was made; perhaps the couple simply purchased the painting completely unaware of its devious origin story.
Deny Deny Deny
People who knew the Alters find it hard to think of them as criminal masterminds. And opinions are mixed about whether a sketch of the suspects resembles the couple.
Still a Mystery
Today, the painting is safely housed in the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Even though a year has passed since the artwork was recovered, the institution is still in the process of raising funds to restore it to its former glory after years of neglect. Though the investigation is ongoing, there have been no arrests in relation to the mystery. All those who knew the Atlers remain baffled by the unlikely and unsolved chain of events.