A new clue has emerged to explain how an unassuming New Mexico couple wound up in possession of a stolen Willem de Kooning painting worth more than $100 million.
The University of Arizona museum reported the theft of the abstract expressionist’s “Woman-Ochre” in November 1985. The painting was found a year ago at a home in New Mexico belonging to Jerry and Rita Alter.
The brazen thieves were a man and a woman who were never caught. Officials believe they distracted a guard, cut the painting from the frame, rolled it up and carried it out under a coat before fleeing in a red sports car.
A newly unearthed family photo places the Alters in Tucson at the time of the theft, according to The Arizona Republic. The photo was taken on Thanksgiving Day, the day before the painting was stolen. It also appears to resemble the composite sketches of the suspects that were released at the time.
Rita Alter’s nephew Ron Roseman told the paper that he doesn’t want to believe his aunt and uncle might have bene 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," Roseman told the paper.
At the same time he also offered another clue that may link his aunt and uncle to the disappearance.
He told the paper that all the cars they owned over the years were red.
“They had one blue car,” he said.
The FBI was not talking about the case, the paper reported.
The Alters were 81 when they each died in 2012 and 2017. Roseman handled the sale of their estate to an antique shop owner, David Van Auker.
Van Auker found the de Kooning behind a door in the master bedroom—as if it was being hidden from visitors to the home.
“I honestly believe that this had been there since the day it was stolen,” he said.
Van Auker wasn’t aware that the painting he purchased was a valuable work of art, the paper reported.
He contacted the FBI and the museum after a customer told the painting could be an original de Kooning and he saw a 2015 news article about the unsolved the theft.