• Republic reporter Anne Ryman on stolen de Kooning painting

    Republic reporter Anne Ryman on stolen de Kooning painting

  • UA police chief relives 1985 theft of de Kooning painting

    UA police chief relives 1985 theft of de Kooning painting

  • Stolen painting found 31 years later

    Stolen painting found 31 years later

  • Who is Willem de Kooning?

    Who is Willem de Kooning?

UA museum officials believe the painting had been reframed only once after being stolen, a possible sign that the art hasn’t passed through multiple owners.

Now that a $100 million stolen painting is back at the University of Arizona, authorities are still tackling the question of who took the valuable work by Willem de Kooning 31 years ago.

 And just as mysteriously, how did the abstract oil painting of a nude woman end up in the home of a quiet, retired couple in Cliff, New Mexico, population 293?

H. Jerome “Jerry” and Rita Alter, the deceased couple who owned the ranch-style home where the painting was found, were an unassuming pair who kept to themselves and loved to travel to exotic places, said people who knew them. They co-authored three books, one about traveling, another about poetry and a twist on Aesop’s Fables.

Jerry taught in New York City schools and was a professional musician, according to the “about the author” notes on one of his books. He visited more than 140 countries and liked gardening, landscape architecture, painting and photography. 

The Alters moved to rural New Mexico in the mid- to late 1970s after he retired, said several people who knew the couple. Rita Alter worked as a speech pathologist with the Silver Consolidated School District.  

The couple had two children, Joseph and Barbara. People who knew the couple said they were unsure of the children’s whereabouts.


Stolen de Kooning painting turns up 31 years later

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‘Blink and you miss it’

Cliff is a “blink and you miss it” town 225 miles east of Tucson, with an elementary school and high school, a gas station, restaurant, post office and laundromat. 

The Alters’ ranch-style home sits just north of Cliff. Property records show the couple purchased the 20-acre parcel in 1974, and the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home was built in 1979. 

Ruth Seawolf, a broker at My Real Estate Company in Silver City, said a man contacted her to put the property up for sale after his aunt passed away a little over a month ago. 

She declined to name the aunt or nephew because the FBI is investigating the painting’s disappearance and recovery. But she said he told her there was a lot of stuff in the home, and he was looking for help with the contents.

“The email he sent me said, ‘Ruthie, I’ve gone through the home, and I don’t think there is anything of value, but help yourself.’ “

Seawolf went to the house, which she describes as “a little dated, older home” with a lot of potential.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be fairly easy to sell,’ ” she said.

She noticed there were “paintings everywhere. The walls were covered.”

In the master bedroom, she saw what would turn out to be the de Kooning painting hanging on the wall. She said she honestly “didn’t think much” of the work.

“Now I’m kicking myself in the butt. I never had any idea it had that value,” she said. 

The FBI has not named any suspects and isn’t commenting on any aspect of the case, except to say that it has “an active and ongoing investigation.”

Seawolf, who is waiting for FBI clearance to list the home for sale, is friends with the owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City. So arrangements were made for the store’s owners, David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, to visit the house and look over the contents. 

Van Auker and Burns found the oil painting striking, except for its ugly gold frame. They thought it would be perfect in the guesthouse they own. They carted it back to their store in a truck along with some midcentury modern furniture and African art objects.

Like Seawolf, they had no idea the artwork had been painted by a famous artist. They later discovered through internet research a 2015 article on azcentral.com that the painting looked like “Woman-Ochre,” a de Kooning masterpiece looted in a daring heist in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.

Van Auker has his theories about how long the painting was in the home. 

He said there were “maybe three objects in the home that were newer than 1962.”

“Just from the dust and where it was hung and everything in the home, this was probably one of the newer pieces in the home,” he said about the de Kooning painting. 

Van Auker believes the artwork “never moved” from the home, adding, “I may be wrong.”

He said there were “probably another 40 paintings” in the house that he believes “were done by the family, and they are really not very good.”

He said he purchased one other painting as part of the estate sale, which he said the FBI plans to photograph.

Stolen day after Thanksgiving in 1985

The theft of “Woman-Ochre” happened on the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, shortly after the museum opened at 9 a.m. Authorities believe a woman distracted the security guard while a man headed upstairs. Unobserved, the man cut the painting from the frame with a sharp blade, rolled up the canvas and stuffed it under his blue winter jacket. 

They fled in a rust-colored sports car.

Police found there wasn’t much of a crime scene. Museum staff were unable to get the car’s license plate. There was no video camera and no fingerprints were detected.

Law enforcement circulated a composite sketch of the thieves. The woman was described as 55 to 60 years old, 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 turning it over to the FBI. 

As many as 20 tips came in over the years, which were forwarded to the FBI, but none panned out. Seastone said UA police aren’t commenting on the investigation because the case is in the hands of the FBI. 

UA isn’t putting a value on the painting. When taken, “Woman-Ochre” was valued at $400,000 for insurance purposes. A decade ago, a similar de Kooning painting that was part of the “Woman” series sold for $137.5 million.

The recovered painting holds slim clues as to where “Woman-Ochre” may have been all these years. 

The painting had been mounted in a gold commercial frame with the canvas crudely stretched and stapled, methods inconsistent with a professional framing. 

UA museum officials believe the painting had been reframed only once after being stolen, a possible sign that the art hasn’t passed through multiple owners.

The painting is now safely back at the art museum, where it will undergo evaluation and some restoration work before going on display to the public. UA has not yet determined when the painting will go on exhibit. 

The safest thing on the Tucson campus right now is the de Kooning painting, UA President Robert C. Robbins said at a press conference and welcome-home ceremony for the painting on Monday. 

“We’re never going to let anyone take it away from us” again, he vowed. 

Reach the reporter at 602-444-8072 or [email protected].


Unsolved mystery: de Kooning painting valued at $100M missing for 30 years

The Republic’s Willem de Kooning obituary from 1997

De Kooning painting fetches $66.3M in New York

Auction delayed for Jackson Pollock painting found in Sun City


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