Couple’s $160 Million Painting Mystery Finally Solved


Did They Steal This Painting?

When a couple passed away, a dealer purchased all of the possessions that previously belonged to them, including one mysterious painting. Little did he know that he was on the verge of a huge discovery. Jerry and Rita Alter were a couple from the small town of Cliff, New Mexico. For the most part, they lived a low-key life. However, friends and family were shocked to find out that for over three decades, they had been in possession of a painting worth millions…

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Keeping A Secret?

Like many happily married couples who enjoy their years of retirement, Jerry and Rita Alter preferred having a fairly quiet, private life. After their careers came to an end and their two kids moved out, they were ready to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. While it seemed that Jerry and Rita were happy to keep things simple in Cliff, New Mexico, there was a mysterious painting in their home that many had spent decades looking for. Were they keeping it a secret? Or did they actually have no idea?

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Untimely Passing

It seemed like the couple’s story would come to an end when in 2012, at the age of 81, Jerry passed away. However, this actually proved to be the first chapter of a much more surprising story. Just five years later, Rita also died. This meant that family members were required to pick up the pieces and try and make sense of the things that the couple left behind. This included the mysterious painting which hung on their bedroom wall for so many years…

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Left Everything Behind

After their untimely passings, Jerry and Rita Alter’s possessions were handed over to nephew Ron Roseman, who eventually put the entire estate up for sale. Soon enough, Roseman attracted many antique dealers from both far and wide. It wouldn’t take long before one dealer purchased everything. David Van Auker, a dealer from a town nearby called Silver City, ended up paying $2,000 for all of the estate assets. However, he was particularly intrigued by the couple’s bedroom painting…

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Mysterious Painting

Out of all of the things that Jerry and Rita had left behind, David Van Auker knew that the painting stood out the most. Depicting a nude lady in an abstract way, Van Auker was sure that it had been painted at some point during the mid-20th century. The dealer hailed from Silver City, which was renowned for its popular art scene. A passionate art fan himself, the style of the painting looked very familiar to him, so he took it back to his antique store.

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Everybody Wanted It

After taking the painting back to his antique store, Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, Van Auker would soon attract many other art lovers to the store who were determined to make the painting their own. “It probably had not been in the store an hour before the first person came in and walked up to it and looked at it and said, ‘I think this is a real de Kooning,'” Van Auker said. “Of course, we just brushed that off.”

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They Needed To Hide It

Despite not thinking too much of the popular demand, it got to a point when every single customer seemed interested in purchasing the painting. It soon became very clear to Van Auker that the painting might be much more valuable than previously anticipated. Together with his partners, Rick Johnson and Buck Burns, Van Auker took the painting, wrapped it in the paper, hid it in the store bathroom, and locked a door. But who was the artist responsible for this painting?

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Dutch Masterpiece

The moment that truly compelled Van Auker to hide the painting was when another customer claimed that it had actually been painted by famous Dutch artist, Willem de Kooning. Despite dismissing the claims at first, the idea played on Van Auker’s mind and eventually made him very protective of the painting. Willem de Kooning is one of the most famous artists from the abstract expressionist movement and Van Auker soon learned that the artist’s works were selling for millions of dollars.

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Something’s Not Right

With his interest piqued by the hungry customers, Van Auker went online to do some research on de Kooning’s work. At this point, the dealer came across a number of articles about a painting called “Woman – Ochre” that had been stolen from an Arizona museum. He called the museum. “I got a student receptionist, and I said to her, ‘I think I have a piece of art that was stolen from you guys,'” he said. “And she said, ‘What piece?’ And I said, ‘The de Kooning.’ And she said, ‘Hold, please.'”

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Cracks Started To Show

During his phone call with the museum, Van Auker described how the painting had shown some cracks, implying that it may have been rolled up when it was stolen. Eventually, a delegation from the museum arrived at the store to inspect the painting. “She walked up to the painting, dropped down on her knees and looked. You could just feel the electricity,” he said. This begs the question; did the painting line up with the story?

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Stolen 30 Years Ago

The story that Van Auker was basing his theory on can be traced back to 1985, when a burglary took place at the University of Arizona Museum in Tucson. It was the day after Thanksgiving and numerous reports suggested that a guard had let an unidentified couple, a man and a woman, into the museum just minutes before it was supposed to open. In a matter of minutes, the painting and the couple had disappeared. Over the years though, more details have surfaced about the day of the heist…

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The Day Of The Heist

It was November 29 and pretty early in the morning. A man and woman thought to be in their 20s and 60s, respectively, arrived at the museum and started speaking with security guard Brian Seastone. Within seconds, the guard escorted them in. While Seastone continued to speak with the woman, the young man proceeded to the third floor. The next 15 minutes set the scene for one of the biggest, longest-running mysteries in the history of modern art…

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The Great Escape

15 minutes later, the guard noticed the young man running out of the museum with the older woman. Understandably suspicious, the guard looked around the museum to make sure that everything was in place. With no surveillance cameras around at the time, it was necessary to do the rounds. Upon reaching the third floor of the museum, the guard saw an empty frame. It was where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” once stood. Without haste, the guard rushed downstairs to try and catch up with the couple…

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Without A Trace

Despite the guard’s efforts to catch up with the couple, they were nowhere to be seen. He immediately alerted the police, who would spend three-plus decades searching for the burglars. For so long, artists and investigators alike speculated about what could have happened to the couple and the painting. Now though, it seems that David Van Auker may have just changed the face of this mystery forever. And just like that, the investigation was well and truly underway…

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Many Clues

In the past year alone, investigators have put together a number of clues linking Jerry and Rita Alter to the de Kooning painting burglary. One clear comparison was the car that the thieves used to get away from the scene of the crime. In a number of photos and home videos, it was clear that the Alters had owned a similar looking red sports car. Also, Rita had owned a red item of clothing identical to the one that the woman at the museum had worn.

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Familiar Story

Another glaring detail linking the Alters to the crime was a book that Jerry had written shortly before his passing. Part of a collection of short stories he had published just a year before he died, The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales was marketed by Jerry as “an amalgamation of actuality and fantasy.” However, there was one particular story called “The Eye of the Jaguar.” It was the details of this short story that seemed to blatantly imply the couple’s involvement in the heist…

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The Eye Of The Jaguar

In “The Eye of the Jaguar,” a security guard welcomes a middle-aged woman and her granddaughter into the art museum where he works. In short, the pair is in awe of an emerald on display at the museum and return six months later to steal it. As they make their grand escape, they run over the guard, who is chasing after them. The story ends with the emerald sitting in an empty room: “And two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!”

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They Were Millionaires?

Another detail that simply didn’t add up was the couple’s abnormal fortune. After Jerry and Rita both passed away, their family discovered that they had over a million bucks in their bank account. They seem to have had pretty modest jobs throughout their entire lives, which didn’t match up with the couple’s lavish lifestyle. In fact, Jerry had reportedly visited over 140 countries in every single continent. Amazingly, this was just scratching the surface of the couple’s clandestine activity…

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In light of the burglary, investigators put together a sketch of the man and woman, as described by the security guard at the museum. The New York Times made the following theory: “The sketch of the female suspect – described at the time of the theft as being between 55 and 60 years old – bears a resemblance to Mr. Alter, who was known as Jerry and was then 54. And the sketch of the young man – described at the time as between 25 and 30 years old – bears a resemblance to his son, Joseph M. Alter, who was then 23.”

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Family Thinks They’re Innocent

The New York Times theory heavily implies that it was, in fact, Jerry and his son, Joseph Alter, who stole the painting from the museum. Despite reports that Joseph has suffered from psychological issues for most of his life, Jerry’s sister, Carole Sklar, was completely against the idea that any member of her family would’ve been involved. While the investigation is still going until this very day, two huge developments have all but solved the mystery, once and for all…

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Something’s Missing

One of the strangest details linking Jerry and Rita with the stolen painting can be traced back to the date of the heist. Organized individuals, the Alters kept a meticulous planner, detailing everything they did and everywhere they went. However, when it came to the date that the painting was stolen, there was a blank page. “In the Alters’ day planner from 1985, they took meticulous notes about what they ate, where they went, and the medications they had,” KOB 4 reported. “On Thanksgiving 1985, they mysteriously left it blank.”

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Tucson – Thanksgiving, 1985

Not only did the couple’s day planner fuel the rumors of their involvement in the crime; a photo also recently emerged. The photo shows Jerry and Rita enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s home. Most importantly though, the photo was taken in Tucson, the city where the painting was stolen from. This means that they were in Tucson the day before the burglary. “Composite sketches, in hindsight, resemble the faces in the Thanksgiving photo, down to their position side by side,” the Arizona Republic said.

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Perfect Fit

With the mystery of the stolen painting all but solved, the curator of the University of Arizona Museum of Art had it returned to the very place it was stolen from all those years ago. They even fitted it on top of its original stretcher. “We managed to fit it perfectly. It fit like a glove,” curator Olivia Miller said. Also, after a series of tests, experts confirmed that the painting was, in fact, a de Kooning classic – valued at a stunning $160 million.

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