It’s August 2017, and an antiques dealer has just discovered a notorious stolen painting in a deceased couple’s New Mexico home. But when investigators try to trace the story of Jerry and Rita Alter, they find more questions than answers – and they come across a quiet family who are somehow connected to one of the 20th century’s boldest heists.
Jerry and Rita arrived in the small town of Cliff, NM, at some point towards the end of the 1970s or the beginning of the 1980s. Apparently, Jerry had been employed as a teacher in New York City before moving west to start his retirement. He was also a self-published author and professed a love of adventure travel.
Indeed, according to the profile in one of his books, Jerry was a voracious traveler. He’d reportedly set foot in more than 140 countries and all seven continents by the time he turned 80. Meanwhile, his wife, Rita, also had an educational background. She’d found work in local schools as a speech pathologist after the pair relocated to New Mexico.
So, with their two children, Barbara and Joseph, having left home, the Alters settled into a quiet life in Cliff. And according to those who knew them, they were a pleasant – if private – couple. But little did their friends and neighbors know that Jerry and Rita were hiding a million-dollar secret behind the walls of their modest home.
In 2012 Jerry died at the age of 81; and five years later, Rita also passed away. It then fell to the deceased couple’s nephew Ron Roseman to distribute the estate. And in due course, Roseman put Alter’s Cliff home up for sale and invited local antiques dealers to look at its contents.
Then when David Van Auker, a dealer from the nearby community of Silver City, arrived at the Alters’ home, he found himself drawn to one painting in particular. A mid-20th-century piece featuring an abstract interpretation of a naked woman, it had been hung in a peculiar place in Jerry and Rita’s bedroom – displayed so that it could only be seen when the door was closed.
In the end, Van Auker forked out $2,000 for the estate – including the painting that had caught his eye. But when he took the piece back to Silver City, he was in for a shock. Apparently, the town is home to an unusually large population of artists, some of whom soon found their way into Van Auker’s antiques and furniture store.
And after seeing the Alters’ painting on display, one visitor remarked that it appeared to be a genuine work by Willem de Kooning – an abstract expressionist from the Netherlands who became famous as part of the renowned New York School. Today, his work can sell for tens of millions of dollars.
At first, Van Auker dismissed the outlandish claim. But when other customers began to repeat the suspicion, the dealer began to wonder exactly what he might have acquired. Hiding the painting away in the bathroom, he took to the internet – and what he discovered left him amazed.
Soon, Van Auker stumbled upon an article about a robbery that had taken place at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, AZ, back in 1985. On the morning of November 29, a man and a woman had arrived at the museum just as a security guard was unlocking the doors to admit a member of staff.
As it was close to opening time, the guard did not stop the couple when they stepped through the door as well. In fact, he soon started chatting with one – a woman thought to be around 55 to 60 years old. Meanwhile, the man, who appeared to be in his late twenties, wandered up to the second floor of the museum.
After just a few minutes, however, the man returned and the pair left in a hurry. Suspicious, the guard went to investigate, only to discover that a valuable painting – Woman-Ochre by de Kooning – had been removed from its frame. But by that time the couple had disappeared, sparking a mystery that would stump investigators for the next 30 years.
Fast forward to 2017, and Van Auker soon realized that the stolen painting and his latest acquisition might be one and the same. And after he telephoned the Tucson museum, they agreed to send a delegation to inspect the piece. Anxious, Van Auker remained awake throughout the night, protecting the artwork with loaded guns.
The curator of the museum subsequently arrived, and experts were able to confirm Van Auker’s suspicions. Yes, the quiet, elderly Alters had somehow ended up with the stolen de Kooning on their bedroom wall. And by the time that the artwork was discovered, it was valued at a staggering $160 million. But had they merely acquired the painting without knowing its origins, or was there something more sinister at play?
Over the next year, facts emerged that suggested the Alters were not quite as innocent as they might have appeared. For example, they seemed to enjoy an expensive lifestyle of world travel – despite the fact that their time at work had been spent teaching in ordinary schools. And when the couple died, family members discovered that they had over a million dollars saved.
Apparently, Roseman believed his aunt and uncle were simply good with money. But the couple’s inexplicable riches weren’t the only suspicious thing about them. No, reportedly, in August 2018 a photograph emerged that proved Jerry and Rita were in Tucson for Thanksgiving in 1985; that was one day before the de Kooning disappeared.
Journalists from The New York Times then discovered that the Alters had once owned a red sports car similar to one seen driving away from the scene of the crime. Furthermore, Rita had allegedly possessed a coat, scarf and glasses comparable to those worn by the female suspect. Perhaps most damningly, though, the couple’s usually detailed journal was found to have been left blank for Thanksgiving that year.
Additionally, many believe that a composite sketch made by police bears a resemblance to the couple back in 1985. Some, however, have suggested that the male suspect – thought to have been decades younger than Jerry was at the time – could have been the couple’s son Joseph, with a disguised Jerry having taken on the female role.
The oddest piece of the mystery, though, came in the form of a short story that Jerry published in 2011. In it, he wrote about a young woman and her granddaughter who befriend a security guard – only to return later to steal a valuable emerald from under his nose. Crucially, the tale ends with the jewel on display where only the two thieves could see it. Was this piece of fiction Jerry’s confession? And did these two mild-mannered teachers really steal an artwork worth millions – just to hang it on their bedroom wall?
Today, the painting is back at its home in the University of Arizona Museum of Art. And even though a year has passed since the artwork’s discovery, the institution is still in the process of raising funds to restore it to its former glory. Meanwhile, there have been no arrests in relation to the mystery – and the Alters’ friends and family remain baffled by the bizarre and unlikely chain of events.