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How an ordinary New Mexico couple pulled off $150 million art heist

Jerry and Rita Alter were viewed by friends and family as harmless eccentrics.

Known for loving exotic travel, they celebrated their journeys with self-indulgent slide shows. Jerry was a jazz musician, a commercially unsuccessful artist, an unpublished author and a retired New York City public school teacher. Rita made a career as a speech pathologist. Cheesy statuary, including pyramids made from brightly colored tiles, cluttered their backyard in the small town of Cliff, NM, while Jerry’s paintings and the couple’s souvenirs filled the modest home’s interior.

But the Alters had a secret: They were accomplished art thieves.

That fact came to light in 2017, after Rita passed away at age 81 — Jerry had died in 2012 at the same age — when a local antiques merchant stumbled across a $150 million Willem de Kooning artwork hanging in the deceased couple’s master bedroom.

The stolen de Kooning was found hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter’s bedroom door.
No one suspected Jerry, a retired school teacher, and Rita, a speech pathologist, of being thieves.
No one suspected Jerry, a retired school teacher, and Rita, a speech pathologist, of being thieves.

The 1955 painting, “Woman-Ochre,” had been stolen from University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 — by Jerry and Rita, it turned out.

As unraveled in a new documentary “The Thief Collector,” its whereabouts were an art-world mystery until the Alters’ nephew, Ron Roseman, the executor of their estate, asked a local antiques dealer to go through the house in search of valuables that might be sellable.

“There was nothing great — except for one thing,” David Van Auker, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture Antiques in Silver City, NM,, told The Post.

Van Auker would know. He found the painting.

Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker are the owners of Manzanita Ridge Antique Shop, in Silver City, NM, where the painting's provenance was discovered.
Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker are the owners of Manzanita Ridge Antique Shop, in Silver City, NM, where the painting’s provenance was discovered.
CHRIST CHAVEZ/The New York Times

Jerry’s blindingly bright abstract pieces “were so bad,” Van Auker recalled, he left them behind and took a lamp, a vase and the De Kooning without yet realizing what it was. “[My business parter] and I own a vacation rental in the mountains. I thought the painting would be good to put there. We wouldn’t even hang it in our own home.”

The piece, which turned out to be “Woman-Ochre,” might have been relegated to a corner of the vacation property had a sharp-eyed artist, James Cuetara, not happened into the shop. He recognized it as a masterpiece and immediately offered $200,000.

Assuming the customer was joking, Van Auker said, “Sold!”

Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" is valued at $150,000,000.
Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” is valued at $150,000,000.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

But the man was serious. “An offer of $400 or $450 would have taken it,” said Van Auker. “But James was honest right from the get-go. He said he thought it was real and we should investigate it.”

Van Auker took to Google and quickly spotted an article in the Arizona Republic about the painting’s theft.

“The day after Thanksgiving, in 1985, a man and woman entered this small museum right when it opened,” Allison Otto, director of “The Thief Collector,” which is currently seeking distribution, told The Post. “The woman distracted [an employee] while the man went into a gallery, sliced the painting out, folded it up and put it under his jacket. They then vanished into the desert with one of the 20th century’s most valuable paintings.”

It's unknown why Jerry and Rita took the painting — and why the kept it.
It’s unknown why Jerry and Rita took the painting — and why the kept it.

The man and woman, of course, were Rita and Jerry. What made the crime perfect was that the Alters operated differently from typical criminals: They had no interest in selling the painting. So it never landed at an auction house or even slipped into a black market where it could have been traced to them. No fingerprints were left behind. The theft was assumed to be a contract job, with the work stolen for a specific collector who had a particular need.

Stealing for themselves, the Alters were a rare type of art thief.

“They feel that since they care about it, they are entitled to have these pieces; those are the most dangerous [thieves] and the hardest to capture,” Bob Wittman, founder of the FBI art crime team, says in the movie. “They steal these materials, hide them, keep them for their eyes only. And those things go away for many years before they come back.”

The de Kooning was lifted from the University of Arizona's Museum of Art.
The de Kooning was lifted from the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art.
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And that is precisely what the Alters did. Because of their discretion, they were the art thieves next door that even close friends and relatives did not suspect. The trail went cold and the case closed in 1987 due to lack of evidence.

Nevertheless, “Woman-Ochre” remained on the FBI’s Top 10 crime list.

Everything changed in 2017. A call went out to the museum. Curator Olivia Miller called the police, who contacted the FBI. One day later, the painting was reunited with its proper custodians.

A police sketch of the suspects portrays the Alters.
A police sketch of the suspects portrays the Alters.

“Olivia started to cry,” said Van Auker. “She was almost speechless.”

The work was a little worse for wear: Paint had flaked off when it was hastily rolled up by Jerry. Amazingly, the Alters had the temerity to retouch the painting themselves. They also stapled the front of the work to a stretcher that they had purchased. It all resulted in damages that Ulrich Birkmaier, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, needed to resolve.

All the while, a question loomed: Who was this couple that managed to pull off the ultimate art heist?

Experts say thieves like the Alters, who keep their loot rather than selling it, are rare.
Experts say thieves like the Alters, who keep their loot rather than selling it, are rare.

Initially, it was believed that the theft was a one-time crime of opportunity. But then odd clues popped up.

For one, there was Jerry’s unpublished short-story collection, “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales,” which contained sagas said to be based on his life experiences. Thinly veiled accounts of various thefts, including that of the de Kooning (via a story entitled “Thrill Seekers”), are in the book.

“I think there was an obsession with getting away with things,” said Otto. “The book shows Jerry committing nefarious acts and wanting to prove himself smarter than the institutions.” At the time of Rita’s death, “they had more than $1 million in a bank account.

“It’s unlikely that a retired teacher and a speech therapist in rural New Mexico could [legitimately] accumulate more than $1 million,” Otto added.

The painting is now back at the museum.
The painting is now back at the museum.
Patrick Breen/The Republic
Its frame was left behind, after Jerry cut out the painting.
Its frame was left behind, after Jerry cut out the painting.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

Bolstering a theory that the couple had committed other thefts — and possibly sold their ill-gotten gains during travels overseas — were remnants from their home that were thought to be worthless reproductions and wound up donated, by Roseman, to a Silver City thrift store called Town & Country Garden Club.

“They arrived with a pickup truck full of stuff,” Harriet Rogers, a volunteer at Town & Country, says in the doc. “One of the teenagers came in carrying a Frederick Remington bronze. He’s one of the most famous art sculptors of the Western school! I said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t take that. We are a thrift store. We sell things for $2 and $5’” – but she took it anyway. “This was an amazing deal. My son picked up a painting of an Indian and said, ‘Oh, my lord, this is a J.H. Sharp.’ J.H. Sharp is one of the most famous Western artists. My son called Sotheby’s and they were interested. This stuff was good enough for Sotheby’s.”

According to Rogers, “The total intake [from Sotheby’s selling the goods] was $160,000. We received a check for $129,000.”

As for whether or not the Alters had obtained the art through shady means, Rogers says, “The FBI came out and took pictures. [They said] it wasn’t stolen.”

In the doc, though, Van Auker recalls something he says he was told by an FBI agent: “Just because we cleared it, doesn’t mean it was not stolen.”

The Alters' story is told in the new documentary "The Thief Collector," which does not yet have distribution.
The Alters’ story is told in the new documentary “The Thief Collector,” which does not yet have distribution.

Van Auker added to The Post: “It’s just not on their radar.”

As to how this all shook out for Jerry Alter, said to be the mastermind, Van Auker figures that he’d be feeling weirdly vindicated.

“Before all of this, his art was unsellable; now it is the art thief’s art,” said Van Auker, who retrieved the “so bad” pieces as soon as Alter became notorious. “There were 75 paintings and I sold 20 of them to a radio station owner in the Midwest for $5,000. He was fascinated by the story. I have 13 of them. And his book is selling on Amazon” — at $54 for a paperback copy.

“Jerry was arrogant and egotistical. He would think he finally got his due and would not be surprised,” said Van Auker. “If there is an afterlife, Jerry Alter is looking down and smugly chuckling.”

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