Willem De Kooning ‘Woman-Ochre’ Painting Heist Solved: Found Hanging In Couple’s Bedroom After Their Death

The painting was stolen from the University Of Arizona Museum Of Art on Thanksgiving Day in 1985.

Willem de Kooning painting found
Markus Stuecklin / AP Images

The painting was stolen from the University Of Arizona Museum Of Art on Thanksgiving Day in 1985.

A painting heist from 1985 that has had authorities scratching their heads may have finally been put to bed. According to Arizona Republic, the priceless oil painting – some estimate to be worth anywhere between $150 million and $200 million – was recovered last year during a New Mexico estate sale.

New information has recently come to light suggesting a – as the neighbors described them – “lovely couple” in New Mexico may have committed the heist. While the neighbors did describe the couple as a nice enough to the reporters of Arizona Republic, they also admitted they didn’t really know that much about the duo.

A recently discovered family photo revealed Jerry and Rita Alter were in Tucson, Arizona at the time of the heist. The pair spent Thanksgiving Day of 1985 surrounded by family members and pumpkin pie.

The couple moved to a rural area of New Mexico after they retired in their 50s.

It was just a day after their Thanksgiving family photo was taken at the Willem De Kooning “Woman-Ochre” painting was lifted from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Authorities believed the heist was committed by a man and a woman. The couple distracted the guard long enough to cut the painting out of the frame, roll it up, and sneak it out of the museum under one of their coats. Both the art thieves and the painting disappeared for the next three decades.

Authorities confirm the composite sketches of the thieves do resemble Rita and Jerry. It wasn’t until the couple passed away three decades later and the painting was discovered hanging in their bedroom, that the connection between them and the heist began to form.

Even at the estate sale, the individuals working the sale didn’t recognize the painting. David Van Auker, the co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, purchased the painting for $2,000.

Initially, Van Auker did not believe the claims his customers were making about the painting. He bought it because he thought it was a “great, cool mid-century painting” and knew nothing about the history. It wasn’t until several customers recognized the painting that he decided to call the curator of the museum where the painting was stolen.

KOB 4 reports the couple was notorious about keeping up with a day planner that included where they went, what they had to eat, and their medication. Mysteriously – and completely out of character – the couple did not take any notes on the day the painting went missing.

At the time, the museum did not have any security cameras and police were never able to find any fingerprints. So, the composite sketches of what the guard recalled were the only thing authorities had to work with. That, and the fact that the man and woman sped away in a red sports car.

According to the New York Times, Jerry may have subtly told the story of his art heist when he published a series of short stories the year before he passed away. In one story titled, “The Eye of the Jaguar,” he tells the story of a woman and her granddaughter who swiped an emerald gem from a museum.

In the book, he explains the woman focuses on distracting the security guard to give her granddaughter time to steal the gem. The woman and her granddaughter leave the museum in a sports car and no one ever finds out they stole the gem.

Daily Mail reports the couple also had a deep love for traveling and had visited 140 countries across all seven continents despite not appearing to have much money. The couple also had over a million dollars in their savings account at the time of their passing. Family members assumed the couple just lived an exceptionally frugal life.

At this time, several media outlets report their children Joseph Alter and an unnamed daughter have not been located. Those who knew the couple revealed Joseph would have been 23 when the heist happened. Their son reportedly suffered from serious psychological issues and spent most of his life shuffling in and out of various mental institutions.

Several individuals who knew the couple three decades ago have also confirmed to multiple media outlets the couple did own a red sports car near the time that the heist took place.