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The de Kooning Behind The Door

from artnet

Was This Mild-Mannered Schoolteacher Couple Behind the Unsolved Heist of a $160 Million de Kooning Painting?

Does a book of short stories hold a clue as to how Jerry and Rita Alter acquired a stolen de Kooning?

The stolen De Kooning seen hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter's bedroom door. Photo by Rick Johnson, courtesy of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques.The stolen De Kooning seen hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter’s bedroom door. Photo by Rick Johnson, courtesy of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques.

Last year, the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson was thrilled to announce the long-awaited return of Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1954–55), which had been stolen from the museum in 1985. Now, new details have emerged about the elderly couple who kept the painting in their bedroom for decades, suggesting they may have carried out the daring heist.

No one who knew Jerry and Rita Alter, mild-mannered former school teachers, ever suspected they were hiding a stolen masterpiece in their Cliff, New Mexico, home, but that’s exactly where Woman-Ochre turned up, 32 years after a pair of thieves first made off with it. Jerry died in 2012, and Rita in 2017, and their estate was purchased by Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques of Silver City, New Mexico, for about $2,000.

One piece, a midcentury painting hanging behind the bedroom door, caught the store owners’ eyes. The shop put the painting on view, where eagle-eyed visitors quickly pegged it for a real De Kooning. A quick internet search turned up the story of the university’s stolen painting, and the work was promptly returned by Good Samaritan co-owners David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson. (The museum traveled to Silver City this past weekend to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the artwork’s recovery, with a party and panel discussion.) Currently, the museum is raising money to repair the work so it can be returned to view.

But a recently discovered image is fueling speculation that the couple was personally responsible for the robbery, which occurred the day after Thanksgiving. The Alter’s nephew and estate executor, Ron Roseman, has produced a photograph of the Alters taken in Tucson the day before the heist, seated at a holiday dinner table during dessert. AZ Central, which first published the image, points out that the snapshot bears a striking resemblance to a police sketch of the robbery suspects.

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Posted on August 12, 2018 by Editor

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