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Small-Town Couple Suspected In 1985 Theft Of $100M Willem de Kooning Painting

"Woman-Ochre," has been recovered, and investigators are eyeing a late New Mexico couple in its heist.

By JB Nicholas

One day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a young man and a person who appeared to be an older woman walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art. As the woman distracted a guard, the man cut a prized avant-garde painting from its frame, hid it under his coat and walked out.

So began one of the greatest art-crime mysteries of the late 20th Century: Who stole Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre”?

At the time of its theft, the painting was valued at $400,000. Today, it is worth more than $100 million.

Now, 33 years later, the painting has been recovered by the museum, after it was sold as part of the estate of a former New York City school teacher and his wife, who had hung the work in the bedroom of their modest home in New Mexico, according to the Arizona Republic.

Jerome Alter and his wife, Rita, fled New York City to escape the rat race, according to Rita Alter’s nephew, Ron Roseman, who spoke with the newspaper this month. They settled in Cliff, New Mexico — a rural town with a population of less than 300.

Jerome died in 2012 and Rita died earlier last summer, according to the Republic.

After Rita’s death, Roseman arranged an estate sale, and in August 2017 representatives of the Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques visited the Alter’s home, the Arizona Republic reported at the time.

“My first thought was, ‘Wow, what a horrible frame,’” Buck Burns, a co-owner of the store, told the newspaper. But Burns and another of the other owners liked the painting, so they took it and propped it against a coffee table in the showroom of their store.

The next day, three customers asked if the painting was a de Kooning. Burns got scared and hid the painting in the store’s bathroom.

That’s when another owner, David Van Auker, went online and discovered a newspaper article detailing the theft of a de Kooning, and the picture that accompanied the report matched the painting hiding out in the bathroom.

The next day he called the museum, and the day after that museum officials came and collected the de Kooning.

That was almost a year ago — and now, attention has focused on the Alters, and their potential role in the theft.

Roseman, Rita Alter’s nephew and the executor of her estate, spoke with the New York Times in early August and said: “My driving instinct is to say: ‘This couldn’t be my aunt and uncle who had it since the beginning.’ But, well gosh, it’s like I said, I’m as clueless as everybody else. It’s hard to believe that they were that — I don’t know what the word for it is.”

According to the Times, the police composite sketch of the female suspect made at the time of the theft in 1985 “bears a resemblance” to Jerome Alter, who may have dressed in drag for the theft, while the sketch of the young man looks like the Alters’ son, Joseph, who was then 23.

Moreover, at the time of the theft, the Times reports, the Alters owned a red two-door Nissan sports car — a witness reported seeing the two suspects make their getaway in a red car.

Joseph Alter, now 55, could not be reached for comment. Several people who knew his parents, and Roseman, told the Times that Joseph has severe psychological problems since the mid-1980s and has been hospitalized in mental institutions on-and-off since.

Roseman told the Times Joseph was currently hospitalized.

But Jerome Alter’s sister, Carole Sklar, 81, threw cold water on the idea that her brother, his wife or their troubled son had been involved in the de Kooning heist. She called it “absurd” and said that it was “laughable” her brother would dress as a woman.

“That Jerry and Rita would risk something as wild and crazy as grand larceny — risk the possibility of winding up in prison, for God’s sake — they wouldn’t do that,” she said.

Still, Van Auker, the antique store owner who discovered the painting was a de Kooning and returned it to the museum, told the Arizona Republic that when he removed the painting from the wall in the Alter’s bedroom there was an outline where the painting had hung, indicating it had been there for some time.

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

[Photo: University of Arizona Museum Of Art]

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