New FBI clues reveal more about the mysterious couple who had a stolen de Kooning painting

On her first day on the job, Jori Frost says she saw the painting hanging behind a bedroom door next to a Hoover vacuum.

Frost had been hired in 2017 as a caregiver to Rita Alter, a widow in her early 80s with dementia, and Alter was giving her a tour of the three-bedroom home.

When Alter closed the door to show where she kept the vacuum, Frost saw an abstract oil painting in a cheap gold frame. It appeared to be an image of a nude woman with splashes of vibrant color.

“Oh my goodness, that is such an ugly painting,” Frost blurted out, even though she meant to keep her opinions to herself.

Alter looked at her disapprovingly.

“Honey, if you knew how much that painting was worth, you would eat your words,” Alter said.

Lady, you have dementia, Frost thought. This painting isn’t worth anything.

After Alter’s death later that year, the antique store owners who bought the painting in an estate sale discovered the painting was, in fact, an original by the artist Willem de Kooning, who named it “Woman-Ochre.” It had been stolen in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.

The theft was brazen and bewildering, the getaway swift, the trail of clues sparse and long-since dried up.

None of their relatives could explain how the painting, years later, ended up in their house. Could this pair of retirees in southwestern New Mexico have pulled off such a clean heist?

Suddenly, Rita and Jerry Alter were infamous.

The painting had been damaged in the theft and had faded with decades of neglect.  Museum officials sent it away for restoration. Now, as the restored painting goes back on display in Tucson in October, newly released FBI documents and more than a dozen new interviews by The Arizona Republic raise new questions about who might have been involved in the theft, and about the couple’s extensive art collection beyond the de Kooning. 

Summaries of FBI interviews support Frost’s story, suggesting that shortly before her death, Rita Alter acknowledged to her caregiver that she knew the painting was valuable, and to yet another suggested there was more “hidden art” on the property.

The documents reveal that other valuable artwork was found in the Alter’s estate as well, including two paintings by Western artists whose work typically sells for in the six figures. A year after the de Kooning discovery, the FBI investigated the Alters in connection with the theft of a Navajo blanket from another Arizona museum but didn’t find the blanket.

The FBI still won’t say if agents believe the retired couple was the thieves, if there were accomplices, or if the Alters were linked to other art thefts.

But the newly released documents and interviews provide a more complete picture of the New York City transplants and how they lived quietly, for nearly four decades, in a house atop a mesa deep in ranchland — a spot where they would have seen visitors coming long before they arrived.

"Woman-Ochre," an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, was stolen from the University of Arizona in 1985 and found in 2017 in the bedroom of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, after their deaths.
"Woman-Ochre," an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, was stolen from the University of Arizona in 1985 and found in 2017 in the bedroom of Jerry and Rita Alter in Cliff, New Mexico, after their deaths.

New York City years

Herman Jerome “Jerry” Alter was born in New York City in 1930. His family had a store that sold old furniture and knickknacks.  His future wife, Sara Rita Sinofsky, was born in 1935 in New Jersey. Her family ran a newspaper delivery business.

They met at a hotel in the Catskill Mountains in 1955, where Alter played clarinet in a jazz band and Sinofsky had gone to be a waitress. When she got there, she discovered there wasn't a job opening, so she went to a café to mull her predicament. That's where Alter spotted her and struck up a conversation, according to their nephew, Ron Roseman, who is executor of his aunt’s estate.

They married in 1957.

The Alters lived in New York City at the same time a Dutch-American artist, Willem de Kooning, was making a name for himself in the city. De Kooning shocked the art world in the 1950s with a series known as the “Women” paintings. They were dramatic, aggressive depictions of women with big mouths, wide eyes and exaggerated breasts.

One of the “Women” paintings, made in the winter of 1954-55, featured a nude woman with breasts accented in yellow. De Kooning added hues of turquoise, green, crimson and orange against a neutral background. He sold the work, titled “Woman-Ochre," along with several other paintings, to Martha Jackson, a New York City art gallery owner. Jackson exhibited the paintings at her art gallery in 1955.

Whether Jerry or Rita saw the painting while it was on exhibit — or knew or crossed paths with de Kooning — remains a mystery. The Alters were known to appreciate art and to visit museums.

The couple lived in New York City and had a son, Joseph, in 1962 and a daughter, Barbara, 13 months later.

Jerry was a professional jazz musician, playing saxophone and clarinet.  He commuted from the leafy suburb of Closter, New Jersey, to Manhattan where he worked as a music teacher at P.S. 187.

Nina Beck, a former student, remembered him as sweet and kind. Beck later became a professional musician and reconnected with her former teacher in 2010 over email, where he shared his teaching philosophy with her. He said he wanted his students to develop a love for music, pride in performing and create happy memories.

"To teach is to touch a life forever," he wrote.

Claudette Laureano was an elementary school student of Jerry Alter’s in the 1960s, and remembers him playing the students classical music and show tunes from musicals like "West Side Story." She learned to play the recorder in his class. He would bring in his clarinet and play.

“He played beautifully,” she said.

Jerry Alter left the school in 1967, according to his former students. He said he had been passed over for a promotion. He decided to retire early at age 47 and "get out of the rat race," said Roseman, the couple’s nephew.

The Alters’ next stop would be about as far as one could get from New York City.

A windmill spins in Cliff, New Mexico, on Aug. 16, 2022.
A windmill spins in Cliff, New Mexico, on Aug. 16, 2022.

From NYC to rural New Mexico

The Alters used money Rita inherited from her mother to buy property in 1974 in a mountain valley, surrounded by ranch land in southwestern New Mexico, Roseman said.

He said they likely researched potential retirement spots and may have picked Cliff because it was affordable and remote.

Cliff has fewer than 200 people. Ranch houses and mobile homes dot the rolling landscape. The Gila River winds its way through the unincorporated town.

The Alters purchased 20 acres on top of a mesa.

They moved there in 1977 and lived in a trailer with their teenage son and daughter as Jerry drew up blueprints and hired contractors to build a 1,700-square-foot ranch house. The family kept to themselves, rarely socializing. Jerry had a "smarter than the average man" attitude that some perceived as arrogant. Rita was quieter and deferential to her husband.

With Jerry retired, Rita went to work as a speech pathologist for the schools in Silver City, a 30-minute drive away.

Christy Miller, a special education teacher, shared an office with Rita and a half-dozen others at G.W. Stout Elementary School. Rita traveled to a couple of schools, helping children with speech and language. Miller really liked Rita. She was quiet with a good sense of humor. She wasn't the type to join co-workers for lunch. But on one occasion, she invited Miller and her family for dinner.

"We have a pool. Make sure you bring your swimsuits," Rita told her.

As they pulled up the long driveway to the Alter's home, Miller, her husband, Rick, and two young daughters marveled at the sight.

The single-story ranch house was set back from the road. In the yard were a stone obelisk and a pyramid covered with intricate tiles. Busts of composers, philosophers and writers, such as William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, sat atop stone pillars. An in-ground swimming pool — unusual for Cliff — had expansive views of the Mogollon Mountains.

Miller was nervous. She had never met Jerry. Her husband didn’t know either of the Alters. But the moment the door opened, she felt at home. Jerry charmed them. He kept the conversation flowing with tales of worldly travels. Rita smiled and chimed in with details.

The Millers stayed mainly in the living and dining rooms, which were dominated by a 360-degree stone fireplace. The Alters didn't offer a tour of the house. But that didn’t strike the Millers as unusual.

As they drove home, Miller wondered why two New York City transplants chose to move to a small town in a remote part of the state. The closest airport at that time was in El Paso, three hours away. "How did they end up here? Why did they end up here?" she wondered.

She was also curious how a retired music teacher and a speech pathologist who worked for the school district could have such an affluent home and could afford to travel overseas. She thought that perhaps they had inherited money.

Many people in Cliff camped or hunted or fished for vacations. But the Alters jetted off overseas to places like Hong Kong, Chile and Tasmania.

They loved to document their travels. Home movies show Jerry and Rita and their two children, smiling and waving as they strolled tropical beaches. Jerry chopped coconuts. The kids chewed on freshly cut sugar cane. The family climbed mountain paths strewn with wildflowers. Jerry preened at the camera, his smile wide and his posture ramrod-straight.

Rita and Jerry Alter traveled often overseas. Their passports were full of stamps from countries across the world.
Rita and Jerry Alter traveled often overseas. Their passports were full of stamps from countries across the world.

Rita kept yearly travel diaries, noting where they stayed, remarking on the weather. She described a January day in 2001 on the Caribbean island of Anguilla.

"What a gorgeous white sand beach, aqua transparent water just offshore, nice snorkeling a little further out. Picnic on beach."

The Alters visited about 145 countries, including both polar regions. They kept a list of their favorite spots, which included the Mount Everest region of Nepal and Tibet, scuba diving in the Red Sea, India's Taj Mahal and Kenya game reserves.

Roseman, their nephew, drove to Cliff to visit his aunt and uncle often while a college student at the University of Arizona in the early 1980s. He found their travel tales fascinating, and a sharp contrast to his own parents, who he said rarely left Tucson.

Most people in Cliff are related or connected in some way. The Alters didn’t fit in. They were considered outsiders coming from New York City, said Darren McBride, who owns a business in Cliff that makes custom fishing rods.

Rita and Jerry Alter traveled often overseas and logged dates and places they visited in their travel journals.
Rita and Jerry Alter traveled often overseas and logged dates and places they visited in their travel journals.

McBride was in the same class as the Alters' daughter, Barbara, graduating from high school in 1982. Only 20 people made up the class so everyone knew one another.

Barbara was quiet and often ate lunch alone. In high school, she drove her mother’s Datsun 280Z sports car, he said, a sharp contrast to her classmates, who bumped along in used pickup trucks that barely ran.

McBride grew up about a half mile from the Alters. Despite living so close, he never got an invitation to swim at their house. A gate and fence surrounded the property so he couldn’t just go in.

The Alters’ relationship with their children got more complicated as they grew older.

Roseman said Barbara had a below-average IQ, and she may have been deprived of oxygen during childbirth.

Their son, Joey, was diagnosed with a mental illness, he said. Rita was protective of him and often walked with him near his house in Silver City.

Handwritten notes in the Alters’ travel journals mentioned the children. One entry, on Dec. 13, 1993, noted that, "Joey rolled over the Toyota truck near the cemetery ... totaling it." In another entry on Nov. 3, 1991, Rita wrote that Barbara had called and said she gave birth to a daughter. "The baby is 7 months old, and we're first finding out."

David Van Auker, the antique dealer who later discovered the stolen de Kooning in the Alters' estate, once lived on the same street as Joey around 2003. His first encounter with the Alters was seeing Rita standing in the street, screaming into Joey’s house at her son. He said Joey screamed back.

Joey, now 62, still lives in Silver City in a squat, single-story home with a window-unit air conditioner. Roseman said he keeps in contact and helps him when needed. Joey gets help with shopping and cleaning. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Republic.

In Rita’s later years, caregivers said, Barbara called her mother a couple of times a week, asking for rent money. Rita forgot her daughter had just asked for money. Roseman said Barbara was unhappy when he intervened. He didn’t have much contact with her after that. Barbara died of natural causes in December 2021 at age 58, according to the Sacramento County Coroner's Office.

Roseman said neither Barbara nor Joey have been able to shed light on how the painting ended up in their parents' home.

Several months after the painting was recovered in 2017, Roseman said he showed Joey a picture of the painting to see if he might have any recollections. He said Joey laughed.

"I said, 'Why are you laughing?' He said, 'That’s one of the ugliest paintings I’ve ever seen.' That’s all he would say."

An Arizona mystery: This is the saga of the famous stolen de Kooning painting

A hidden secret

Jerry had a major heart attack in 2002. But the couple continued to travel for several years. Their last overseas trip in 2010 took them to the Caribbean islands of Grenada, St. Vincent and Dominica.

In the spring of 2012, an ambulance pulled up to the long driveway to their home.

Jerry suffered a stroke at 81 and did not recover.

Rita seemed lost without her husband. She had always dressed fashionably with polished red nails. After Jerry’s death, a neighbor recalled seeing her in the post office with chipped nails and disheveled hair.

She showed signs of dementia. Roseman said she placed sticky notes inside her car to remind herself how to drive with instructions such as, "press the middle pedal to stop the car."

On a trip to Walmart, she got into the wrong vehicle after shopping, and a dog bit her. Her nephew, Roseman, stepped in to become her guardian and estate executor.

Roseman and other family members arranged round-the-clock care in early 2017 so she could stay at home. They also photographed the home's contents, including the de Kooning painting hanging behind the bedroom door. Relatives didn't recognize the work as valuable or stolen.

Christa Hardesty, one of Rita Alter’s caregivers in 2017, said Rita did not like anyone being in her bedroom. She especially didn’t want her bedroom door shut.

"She would not like me to mess with the door," she said. "It was a very weird thing."

Rita liked to rise at 5 a.m. After a breakfast of oatmeal and toast, the two pulled weeds and took long walks, Rita wearing a scarf over her hair and oversized sunglasses.

Rita told her "weird stories" as they walked, Hardesty said. In one story later relayed to the FBI, Hardesty said Rita told her Jerry had made a painting that was later stolen from him so he went to a school to “get his art back.” Hardesty was unsure what Rita meant by "school." She figured Rita was referring to Jerry working as a teacher in New York City, and he may have traveled there to get his art back.

According to Hardesty, Rita also claimed there was African art “worth a lot of money” that she said was hidden in the outdoor building that housed a hot tub.

"She said, 'If I catch you in that hot tub room, I will fire you."

Hardesty assured Rita she had no intention of going into that room. The Alters had a collection of African art they amassed while traveling, which they kept in one of the bedrooms. Rita liked to sit in that room.

Rita became confused in the late afternoon and evening, a condition in dementia known as “sundowning.” TV news agitated her; she had trouble reconciling current events with what she remembered. Caregivers instead turned on her favorites like the crime show, “Walker, Texas Ranger.”

In the summer of 2017, the 81-year-old was shopping with a caregiver in the produce section at Walmart when she collapsed. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, where she was put on life support after having a stroke. She would not recover and died on June 5.

Roseman made plans to clear out the house and sell the property.  He said he called a couple of museums and auction houses about the paintings, sculptures and pottery in the home. But he claims they showed no interest.

He threw away some things, donated others to a thrift store and then hired three antique dealers from Silver City to take the rest of the household goods.

David Van Auker, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, co-owners of Manzanita Ridge, offered Roseman $2,000 for the home’s contents plus a couple extra hundred dollars for a few things they wanted to keep for themselves. Van Auker liked an abstract oil painting of a nude woman behind a bedroom door.

The antique dealers didn’t recognize the painting as famous or stolen. They took the painting back to the store, where customers almost immediately noticed the striking painting and asked: Is that a real de Kooning? One customer offered $200,000.

Van Auker started Googling and found an old Republic article that recapped a 1985 theft of a de Kooning painting from the University of Arizona. He propped the painting up near his computer and compared it to the picture online. Every detail matched.

He picked up the phone.

“I am calling from Silver City, New Mexico. And I think I have a piece of art that was stolen from you guys," he told the museum receptionist.

"Well, what piece of art?" she asked.

He replied: "The de Kooning."

The speculation begins

The recovery of "Woman-Ochre" made international news. The painting appraised for as much as $700,000 when stolen. In the three decades it was missing, de Kooning artwork exploded in value. A similar work, “Woman III,” sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

"Woman-Ochre" was estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

"Woman-Ochre" after conservation was nearly complete at the Getty Museum on May 23, 2022.
"Woman-Ochre" after conservation was nearly complete at the Getty Museum on May 23, 2022.

The spotlight focused on the Alters: Were they the thieves? Or did they buy the de Kooning somewhere and hang it in their bedroom, perhaps knowing it was stolen, or perhaps thinking it was a reproduction?

With the Alters dead and unable to answer questions, speculation came fast: If they were the thieves, why did they take “Woman-Ochre”? Did they know de Kooning while they lived in New York City? Was Rita a model or an inspiration for the painting?

The Alters’ image was one of dashing world travelers, harboring an expensive secret. Friends and neighbors were shocked. What motivated someone to keep a stolen painting behind a bedroom door?

“It’s very disturbing," said Leslie Kostrich, a former student of Jerry's.  "It's so hard to wrap your head around."

The circumstantial evidence against the Alters mounted as the months passed:

  • Their nephew, Roseman, discovered a family photo that shows Jerry, Rita and their 23-year-old son, Joey, having Thanksgiving dinner in 1985 with relatives in Tucson. The photo places the family in the same city where the theft took place the next day.

  • Jerry and Rita closely resemble a drawing of the suspects circulated by police in 1985, though one witness thought the woman could have been a man in disguise.

  • Witnesses said the thieves fled the museum in a red or rust-colored sports car. The Alters almost exclusively owned red cars. A handwritten note in their 1985 travel journal said they bought a red Toyota Supra with a $3,000 down payment in January.

  • Jerry self-published a book, "The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales," in 2011 based on travel stories that he called a mix of fiction and reality. In one story, titled "The Eye of the Jaguar," a grandmother and her granddaughter case a city museum and return to steal its prize exhibit, a 120-carat emerald. The thieves leave behind no clues. The jewel is kept hidden "several miles away" from the museum, behind a secret panel, "and two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!" he wrote. The details are similar to the de Kooning theft.

Roseman said he has no idea how his aunt and uncle got the painting. Though he doesn't like to admit it, there are a lot of coincidences that link them to the theft, he said.

"Either they really thought it was a victimless crime or they could care less who it affected," he told The Republic. "I could see it both ways. For both of them."

He said his uncle may have had the attitude: "People are going to be upset it was stolen — but I don’t really care, they’ll get over it — and I got what I wanted."

Christy Miller, who worked with Rita, believes Jerry may have been capable of theft. She was shocked to think Rita may have played a role.

"But you never know what goes on between husband and wife," she said. "And you could tell that she was really in love with Jerry. You could tell she adored him."

Miller believes Jerry would have been the one to orchestrate the theft. He was the planner, the head of the family.

Roseman told The Republic he’s unsure how his aunt and uncle afforded their frequent overseas travels. They earned modest salaries working in public schools. With the exception of maybe a year or two, they never worked at the same time.

Even with Social Security, "It just doesn't fund everything that they did. It doesn't even come close," Roseman said.

He said Rita and her sister split $80,000 to $100,000 in inheritance when Rita's mother died in 1973, and the Alters used their portion to purchase the New Mexico property.  Roseman said he doubts that Jerry Alter had a significant inheritance.

Personnel records show Rita earned $14,676 in 1978, her first year as a speech pathologist in Silver City. She made slightly more — $16,171 — the next year. The district did not have details on the other 17 years she worked. Records say she resigned January 1996 at age 60.

Recently released FBI documents indicate Rita had substantial assets when she died. In the report, the FBI says the Alters' estate executor advises the FBI that there are several bonds owned by Rita Alter “which had a value of over one million dollars.”

The rest of the report is heavily redacted, preventing the public from knowing what else was said during the interview. Roseman told The Republic that he was referring to certificates of deposits, not bonds, when he was interviewed by the FBI, but that the amount was accurate.

'Wait a minute. We can't accept that'

The Silver City Town and Country Garden Club received a large donation of household goods from Ron Roseman, the nephew of Jerry and Rita Alter. He made the donation while cleaning out his aunt's home after her death in 2017.
The Silver City Town and Country Garden Club received a large donation of household goods from Ron Roseman, the nephew of Jerry and Rita Alter. He made the donation while cleaning out his aunt's home after her death in 2017.

Harriet Rogers unlocked the door of a Silver City thrift store on a mid-July day in 2017.

The man at the door was from out of town. His aunt had recently died, and he was clearing out her house. He had a truck full of household goods.

Rogers watched as the donations filled the small downtown store operated by the nonprofit Silver City Town and Country Garden Club. She spotted sculptures, paintings, silverware and dishes.

One sculpture looked familiar, a muscular rider on horseback. A gold plaque on the front read: “Cheyenne by Frederic Remington.” Remington is one of the most famous artists of the American West.

Martha Choquette, former Silver City Town and Country Garden Club volunteer, talks about a large donation of goods to the thrift store in 2017.
Martha Choquette, former Silver City Town and Country Garden Club volunteer, talks about a large donation of goods to the thrift store in 2017.

“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. We can’t accept that,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the man insisted he wanted the donations to benefit the community. She said he seemed anxious to get rid of the stuff. The Garden Club had a reputation for not turning down donations. The boxes piled up and filled the store aisles.

When volunteer Martha Choquette arrived to help, her first thoughts were: "What are we going to do with this? Where do we go with it?" It was the most unusual donation in quantity and quality that she had seen in her more than 15 years with the club.

The Garden Club decided to get an appraisal on the more expensive-looking items.

The Remington turned out to be a replica. But two paintings were originals. They were by masters of Western art — Joseph Henry Sharp and Victor Higgins — whose paintings often sell for six figures. The donation also included bronze sculptures by R.C. Gorman, known as the “Picasso” of American Indian art.

This replica of Frederic Remington's famous Cheyenne sculpture was among the art found in Jerry and Rita Alter's estate. The sculpture ended up at a thrift shop in Silver City, New Mexico where it was auctioned off to benefit charity. The replica is now in a private home.
This replica of Frederic Remington's famous Cheyenne sculpture was among the art found in Jerry and Rita Alter's estate. The sculpture ended up at a thrift shop in Silver City, New Mexico where it was auctioned off to benefit charity. The replica is now in a private home.

Before the thrift store sold anything, news broke about a stolen de Kooning painting discovered by three antique dealers across town. Rogers learned that the thrift store donations had come from the same person: Roseman, the estate executor.

“The FBI did come and check it out and made sure nothing was stolen, at least nothing was on their list,” Rogers told The Republic.

The Garden Club used an auction house for a couple of paintings and sculptures, netting $122,692, according to financial records. It was a huge windfall for a nonprofit that typically brought in about $40,000 a year.

Roseman said he first contacted museums and a few auction houses to see if they wanted the art in his aunt and uncle’s home, but all declined. So he donated the works to the thrift store.

He said he was “a bit” surprised to learn the items brought in more than six figures for the nonprofit.

“Ultimately, I’m glad they were able to fund programs with it,” he said.

People snapped up other, less-expensive items at a silent auction, bringing in another $5,260.

David Van Auker, the antique store owner who discovered the stolen de Kooning in the Alters' estate, bought three or four Navajo blankets at the silent auction.

He put the blankets in his house and forgot about them — until the next year, when he got a text from an FBI agent with a photo of a colorful Navajo chief’s blanket.

The agent wanted to know if Van Auker had seen the blanket in the Alters' estate.

The blanket had been missing for nearly 30 years from the Amerind Museum, a private, nonprofit museum about halfway between Tucson and Silver City.

The blanket theft resembled the de Kooning heist: A man and a woman entered the museum on a slow afternoon on Aug. 27, 1989. An employee saw the blanket in its usual spot on the wall around 3 p.m. An hour later, it was gone. The blanket had been cut from its backing cloth, according to a report by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.

The couple may have signed the visitor roster as "John and Donna" from Tucson. Their last name is illegible. The Sheriff's Office attempted to call the nine people who signed the guest log that afternoon. But no one they talked to saw anything suspicious that day.

A few years later, in 1990, museum officials hoped the blanket would turn up among a large seizure of Native American artifacts in Colorado. But the blanket was not recovered.

When Van Auker received the FBI photo in 2018, he started sleuthing. He compared the picture with blankets he purchased from the Alters' estate. He scoured photos taken inside the Alters' home where a Navajo rug was visible on the wall.

The photos did not match.

The blanket is still missing.

What the FBI says

In December 2018, a team from the FBI Art Crime unit headed into Cliff. The agents passed the school and the county fairgrounds, then made their way up the winding road toward the mesa where the ranch house sits.

From the top of the mesa, it's easy to see someone coming long before they ever reach the curving driveway or the gate.

The agents were looking for evidence related to the de Kooning painting theft.

The new owners told the FBI they had remodeled and had never come across anything of value. They didn’t expect the FBI to find anything this time.

From the redacted documents, it's impossible to tell how far the agents searched, whether they looked in the places the caretakers say they remembered, whether they excavated anything from the yard — and whether they found anything.

The FBI, in an email to The Republic, said agents searched the house but found nothing.

The gate leading to the driveway is locked, and a “PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING” sign flaps in the wind.

The new owners don’t want to talk about the notorious, former occupants. They didn’t return calls, emails or a letter from The Republic asking for an interview.

The FBI has repeatedly declined to say whether the Alters stole the de Kooning or whether they were linked to other art thefts. The only people who know for sure how the Alters obtained the painting were the Alters, said Tim Carpenter, senior special adviser to the FBI Art Crime Team.

“And they took that to the grave with them, unfortunately,” he said.

The FBI and the Art Crime Team would love to solve the mystery but don't have the luxury of speculation, he said. Carpenter said the de Kooning investigation has been closed.

“We don’t really feel like there’s been anything else we could follow up with,” he said.

The case could be reopened based on new evidence or information, and anyone with information is asked to contact their local FBI field office or report tips to

Five years after the painting’s recovery, folks in Cliff and Silver City still gossip about the mysterious Alters. Most are convinced the Alters stole the painting, even if the FBI won’t speculate.

David Van Auker is co-owner of Manzanita Ridge in Silver City, New Mexico. Van Auker and his partners found the de Kooning during an estate sale.
David Van Auker is co-owner of Manzanita Ridge in Silver City, New Mexico. Van Auker and his partners found the de Kooning during an estate sale.

Van Auker, the antique dealer responsible for getting “Woman-Ochre” back to the university, has become the equivalent of a walking encyclopedia about the couple.  Visitors stop into his antique store in downtown Silver City, sharing stories and opinions. On a recent day, he took a break from working to share his thoughts about the Alters, surrounded by China sets and gleaming glassware in his 10,000-square-foot store.

“I kind of think the de Kooning wasn’t the only thing they stole,” he said. “I really do.”

One thing he can’t stand is when people romanticize the couple. The de Kooning theft wasn’t a victimless crime, he said. The theft deprived thousands of people from seeing and studying the painting during the 31 years the art was missing. The theft devastated the museum staffers and damaged the art museum's reputation. No museum wants to be in the news for stolen art.

“They didn’t steal it from the museum, they stole it from all of us. From everyone,” Van Auker said. “And I find that extremely selfish.”

Albert Chamillard, University of Arizona exhibit specialist, examines "Woman-Ochre" after uncrating the oil painting on Sept. 14, 2022.
Albert Chamillard, University of Arizona exhibit specialist, examines "Woman-Ochre" after uncrating the oil painting on Sept. 14, 2022.

How to see 'Woman-Ochre'

Where to see the painting:  A special exhibit, Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre, will be Oct. 8 through May 20, 2023, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1031 N. Olive Road, Tucson. Phone: (520) 621-7567. See the museum's website for more information.

Why is the painting notable?  Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" is part of his famous Women series where the Dutch-American artist explored the female figure. The Women paintings shocked the art world because of their aggressive nature where the female form is characterized by wide eyes, big mouths and exaggerated breasts.

How did the university get the painting? "Woman-Ochre" went on display at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York City in 1955. Baltimore businessman Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. purchased the painting two years later, in 1957. The next year, Gallagher donated "Woman-Ochre" and other works to the University of Arizona Museum of Art in memory of his son, Edward III, who had died in a boating accident a week before turning 14 in 1932. The painting was valued at $6,000 at the time.

How much is the painting worth? The university is no longer releasing a value to the public. But in 2015 when the painting was still missing, “Woman-Ochre” was valued at $100 million to $160 million.

Republic reporter Anne Ryman was the first journalist to break the story that "Woman-Ochre" had been recovered and has written extensively about the painting. Have a question about the painting? You can reach her at or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Who were Jerry and Rita Alter? Missing de Kooning found in couple's home