Friday, August 10, 2018

Jerry & Rita Alter's Heist Of The Century — Willem de Kooning's $160 Million Painting

Jerry & Rita Alter's Heist Of The Century — Willem de Kooning's $160 Million "Woman-Ochre" Painting

A quiet, small-town couple may be the masterminds of a mysterious stolen painting worth approx. $160 million

Priceless oil painting was stolen in daring heist in 1985 from the University of Arizona and recovered as part of an estate sale in August 2017 in New Mexico.

Jerry and Rita Alter spent Thanksgiving Day 1985 with family in Tucson.

A newly discovered photo from the gathering shows them smiling side by side at the dinner table, plates of pumpkin pie in front of them.

Jerry was a retired music teacher and Rita a speech pathologist; a couple of New Yorkers in their 50s who had moved to rural New Mexico.

A day after the photo was taken, a valuable painting by the artist Willem de Kooning was taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Officials believed the thieves — a man and a woman — distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out of the museum under a coat. 

The thieves and the painting disappeared without a trace.

Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side.

No one would have made the connection at the time. But three decades later, the painting, “Woman-Ochre,” turned up in the Alters’ New Mexico home, discovered by accident in the master bedroom following the couple's death.

No one handling the Alters' estate was aware of the background or value of the oil abstract of a nude woman. But when the home's furnishings were sold to a local antiques shop for $2,000, customers immediately recognized it as the work of de Kooning.

The painting is thought to be worth more than $100 million.

August marks the first full year since the painting's recovery. In the 12 months since, clues have emerged that might explain how an unassuming, retired couple came into possession of the artwork.

Rita Alter's nephew and executor of their estate, Ron Roseman, recently discovered the Thanksgiving Day photo while going through family photos and shared it with The Arizona Republic.

Roseman said he doesn't want to believe his beloved aunt and uncle might have been involved in a major art theft.

"We have no idea when they got it, how they got it, if they were involved, if they bought it from someone. Ultimately there’s a lot of coincidence," he told The Republic.

The Alters, it turns out, left other interesting clues, or coincidences, besides the Thanksgiving Day photo.

The FBI has declined to discuss the de Kooning case until it's resolved.

A Red Car
University police didn't find much evidence at the museum crime scene. The museum had no video cameras. Police found no traces of fingerprints.

One witness did say whoever took the painting drove off in a rust-colored sports car.

The Alters almost exclusively drove red cars, their nephew said. "All their cars over the years, but one, was red. They had one blue car," Roseman said.

A composite sketch of the thieves show the woman wearing a scarf and “granny” glasses.

The man was described as 25 to 30 years old with curly hair, an olive complexion, thick mustache and glasses.

The woman may have been a man in disguise, said UA Police Chief Brian Seastone, who was the lead detective on the case before it was turned over to the FBI.

The Alters have two adult children but they have not been able to shed light on how their parents obtained the painting, Roseman said. Neither could be reached for comment by The Republic.

The family photo taken Thanksgiving Day 1985 in Tucson shows the Alters' son, 23-year-old Joseph, at the table with his parents and other family members.

About six months ago, Roseman said he showed a photo of "Woman-Ochre" to Joseph to see if he might remember or have anything to say about the painting.

Roseman said his cousin laughed for about 30 seconds when he saw the painting.

"Why are you laughing?" Roseman asked him.

"That's one of the ugliest paintings I've ever seen," Alter told him.

The Alters Liked Art
Roseman likes to imagine his aunt and uncle acquired the stolen painting in a not-so-nefarious way.

Jerry Alter, a professional musician and a band teacher in New York City schools, left teaching at 47. Roseman said the couple decided to "get out of the rat race" and moved to rural New Mexico in 1977.

Jerry drew up blueprints and hired contractors to build a ranch-style house atop a mesa on 20 acres in Cliff, a blink-and-you-miss-it town of fewer than 300 people. Rita Alter started work as a speech pathologist for the local school district, Silver Consolidated Schools.

They frequented art museums, which leads Roseman to another possible scenario on how his aunt and uncle ended up with the de Kooning.

They could have been at an art exhibit or art gallery, he said, when someone approached them and said, "I have something better in my garage."

He surmises the Alters could have bought the painting under the belief it was either an original de Kooning or a good copy.

David Van Auker is co-owner of the antique shop that inadvertently purchased the stolen de Kooning as part of the Alters' estate sale. He has a theory about how long the painting was in the Alters' home.

Van Auker said the painting was "hidden" from guests behind a door in their master bedroom — as if the couple didn't want anyone but themselves to see it. He found cobwebs and dust when he examined the painting as he was looking over objects in the home in early August 2017.

When the painting was removed from the wall, it left an outline on the wall where the frame had hung, indicating the work had been there for some time.

"I honestly believe that it had been there since the day it was stolen," he said.

The Alters also apparently took steps to safeguard the valuable work.

A camera team from WFAA television station in Dallas was able to enter the Alters' former home for a 2017 documentary on the de Kooning theft.

They examined the area where the painting had hung. On the baseboard, they spotted a thick screw, blocking the door from opening all the way and damaging the painting.

A Veiled Confession?
The Alters were deeply in love, said Roseman, their nephew. When he was going through the contents of their estate, he found love letters they had written to each other, even into old age.

They met in 1955 or 1956 at a hotel in the Catskill Mountains, where H. Jerome "Jerry" played clarinet in a jazz band and Rita Sinofsky had gone to be a waitress. When Rita got there, however, she discovered there wasn't a job opening, so she went to a café to mull over her predicament.

That's where Jerry spotted her, decided she was the one and struck up a conversation, Roseman said. They married a year or two later.

They would fly to exotic vacations during school breaks, visiting more than 140 countries and taking some 13,000 slides.

The Alters wrote three books together, one about traveling, another about poetry and a twist on Aesop's Fables.

"The Cup and The Lip: Exotic Tales" features fictional accounts of travel adventures. In one story, "Eye of the Jaguar," a grandmother and her granddaughter case a local city museum and then return to steal its prize exhibit, a 120-carat emerald.

The thieves leave behind no clues. The jewel is kept hidden "several miles away" from the museum, behind a secret panel, "and two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!" he wrote.

The details are similar to the de Kooning theft.

Roseman said he read parts of his uncle's book five or six years ago. At the time, though, he would have had no inkling a stolen painting was behind their bedroom door, where only the Alters could see it.

It wasn't until after the famous painting was recovered, Roseman said, that a New York Times reporter, researching a story about the painting's recovery, brought to Roseman's attention the emerald-theft story's similarities to the de Kooning theft.

Painting May Not Have Changed Hands
The recovered de Kooning, now safely back at the university, holds a few clues to its travels.

UA museum officials believe the painting was reframed only once after being stolen, a possible sign the work of art hadn't passed through multiple owners.

The painting was mounted in a gold commercial frame. Someone crudely stretched the canvas and screwed it into the frame, methods inconsistent with professional framing.

Roseman, who is a high school computer teacher, said he was close to his aunt and uncle, especially during the late 1970s and early '80s when he was a student at the University of Arizona. He visited them about once a month in Cliff, which is about 225 miles east of Tucson.

After he graduated college, he visited less frequently.

Jerry Alter died in 2012. He was 81.

A few years later, Rita Alter started showing signs of dementia. She placed dozens of sticky notes inside her car to remind herself how to drive with instructions such as, "press the middle pedal to stop the car."

Roseman, who lives in Houston, and other family members made plans for round-the-clock care in January 2017, so she could remain in her home. That's when Roseman first saw the painting behind the door of the master bedroom. But like others, he didn't recognize the work as being valuable or stolen.

Roseman considered himself pretty close to his aunt and uncle. They were worldly and fascinating. And he loved hearing about their travels.

But after the events of the past year, he was "not close enough evidently," he said with a laugh.

How The de Kooning Was Recovered
Rita Alter died in June 2017 at age 81. Roseman, the estate's executor, arranged to clear out and sell the house.

Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in nearby Silver City purchased furniture, African art objects and a couple of paintings, including the as-yet-unidentified de Kooning. Silver City is known for its vibrant arts district.

David Van Auker, one of the shop's owners, found the painting striking. He thought it would be the perfect addition to a guesthouse he owns. He and the shop's co-owners, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, brought the painting to the store in the back of a truck along with lamps and African art.

"The painting actually kind of got thrown in on top last," Van Auker said.

He leaned the painting against a coffee table in the store. The next day, the painting started attracting attention.

"I think that's a real de Kooning," one of the customers said.

Van Auker assumed it was nothing more than a copy. But then two more visitors voiced similar opinions that it was a real de Kooning.

Van Auker typed the words "de Kooning" into his internet browser. Among the results was a 2015 story about a de Kooning painting taken in a daring heist. The photo with the story looked exactly like the one in his store.

Van Auker hid the painting in the shop's bathroom, the only interior room with a lock.

He nervously placed a series of calls: to the university art museum, to the FBI and to The Republic reporter who had written the 2015 story.

The museum's curator, Olivia Miller, was, of course, immediately interested. She asked Van Auker to email photos and measurements of the painting.

With each photo that she examined, Miller grew more excited.

She and other museum staffers drove to the antique shop the next day where, after seeing the painting in person, they arranged to bring it back to the university under police escort.

"After 31 years, stolen 'Woman-Ochre' returns," UA proclaimed.

'Doing The Right Thing'
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Tim Carpenter, who works on the bureau's Art Theft Program, said when he learned "Woman-Ochre" had been found, his first reaction was shock.

The 30-year-plus case had gone cold. When art has been missing for decades, it's only natural to wonder whether the piece has been lost or destroyed, he said.

Valuable stolen art is extraordinarily hard to sell. It's common for high-value pieces to disappear for decades.

But it's gratifying when art is recovered thanks to the actions of "good Samaritans," who call the FBI when they suspect they have come across stolen art, he said.

"I hate to be corny, but it really reinforces the notion that good people are out there and doing the right thing," Carpenter said.

When architect and businessman Edward J. Gallagher Jr. donated "Woman-Ochre" to the museum in 1958, it was appraised at $6,000.

The painting was valued at $400,000 for insurance purposes when stolen.

UA officials aren't releasing a current value on the advice of attorneys, and the museum couldn't and wouldn't sell the painting, under an agreement made with the donor.

But it's safe to say "Woman-Ochre" is worth more than $100 million. A similar de Kooning work, "Woman III," sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

When Will 'Woman-Ochre' Go On Display?
Thefts of valuable paintings in broad daylight are rare, according to the FBI.

Most museum thefts involve smaller, easier-to-fence items, such as historical documents or lower-value artifacts. It's usually museum insiders who are involved, stealing objects out of storage.

The de Kooning theft seemed to be a brazen crime that left few clues behind.

The empty frame showing where a thief ripped Willem
The empty frame showing where a thief ripped Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" painting out of its frame in November 1985. (Photo: Courtesy University of Arizona)

In their haste, the thieves damaged the painting.

A sharp blade was used to cut the painting from its frame. The de Kooning was then ripped out, creating a tear in one corner. The thief rolled the canvas tightly and stuffed it under a coat, causing horizontal creases in the paint.

UA officials are raising funds for repairs, but they don't yet know the extent or cost.

They have difficult decisions to make. Can the painting be reattached to its original frame? How much evidence of the theft should be left, if any?

Museum Curator Olivia Miller said there's a "good likelihood" repairs could start sometime in the next year so that, eventually, "Woman-Ochre" can be displayed at the museum again, more than 30 years after being taken.

The FBI isn't saying who took the de Kooning.

But it's hard to discount the clues, or coincidences, that point to a quirky couple from New Mexico with time to spare on a Thanksgiving vacation in 1985.

Roseman, their nephew, doesn't want to believe the Alters are responsible. But with all the potential clues that have emerged in the last year, "I can see that it's possible," he said.

If that's the case, the de Kooning theft turned out to be the perfect crime. — Anne Ryman | The Arizona Republic

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