On Friday, Woman-Ochre, a $100 million abstract-expressionist painting by master Willem de Kooning, will go on view at the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art nearly four decades after it was stolen from the same building—and five years after it was mysteriously discovered in a New Mexico house belonging to two retired public school teachers.
In tandem with the museum show, new FBI documents related to the 1985 theft—which was carried out by a man and a woman but for which no one has ever been charged—have been released, revealing further insights into the lives of Rita and Jerry Alter, former New York City teachers and New Mexico transplants whose home held the stolen painting.
The 1985 de Kooning robbery was deft: Early on Nov. 29, a couple who had been waiting outside the university museum before it opened entered at approximately 9 a.m. While the woman distracted a museum guard, the man went up the stairs, sliced the de Kooning out of its frame, and rolled it up, authorities said. The couple made their escape in a sports car, and the painting vanished for decades.
As The Daily Beast reported in 2017, the police were called in and sketches of the suspects were made, but no leads emerged. The museum didn’t have security cameras at the time, and the couple managed to get away without leaving fingerprints or any other identifying information behind. The woman was described as a bit older and had a scarf tied around her head; the man had dark hair and a mustache.
After Rita and Jerry died and an antique dealer paid $2,000 for their home’s contents, Woman-Ochre was found behind their bedroom door and authorities were alerted.
Assessing the newly accessible FBI documents, the Arizona Republic found that a further search of the Alter’s estate uncovered two other paintings by Joseph Henry Sharp and Victor Higgins, famed Western artists whose work is often priced in the six figures.
The documents also reveal that while the FBI continues to refuse to divulge whether they think the Alters stole the de Kooning or other artworks, in 2018, the bureau did investigate the couple in connection with the theft of a still-unrecovered Navajo blanket from another Arizona museum.
The Daily Beast reached out to the FBI and the University of Arizona Museum of Art for comment.
From 1975 through 1977, Christy Miller worked alongside Rita at G.W. Stout Elementary School in Silver City, New Mexico; Miller is a special education teacher, while Alter worked as a speech pathologist.
“She and I got to be good friends,” Miller told The Daily Beast. One evening, she, her husband, and their two daughters “went and had dinner with Jerry and Rita.”
“They had a great collection from all their travels because they were avid travelers, but we had no inkling at all at that time” that the couple might be capable of theft, Miller said.
“Rita may very well have gone along with it because it was Jerry and she adored him, and I know people are capable of anything. There’s a part of me that says maybe they did do it,” Miller added.
While the couple seemed like big art enthusiasts, “I don’t remember seeing any fine art [in their collection], but there were so many things to look at and it’s been so long that I cannot remember if they actually had some good art,” Miller said.
Specifically, Miller recalls seeing African and Tahitian art in the Alters’ home.
After the de Kooning was discovered in her friend’s home in 2017, Miller “was very surprised,” she told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t know Jerry as well as I did Rita, but she was such a soft-spoken, lovely woman. She was a great speech pathologist, she really loved her work.”
When the painting was discovered in the Alter estate in 2017, it was found to have been damaged, neglected, and faded. In the aftermath of the masterwork’s recovery, the FBI documents reveal still more eyebrow-raising details: Though Rita made a modest public school salary of $16,171 in 1979, when she passed away, she owned several bonds valued at over $1 million.
Despite their modest professional lives, the FBI documents also show that the Alters traveled lavishly—in total, they visited approximately 145 countries—and kept diligent travel diaries, one of which shows that they were traveling by car in New Mexico in March 1985, the year the theft took place.
Considering the possibility that the Alters really did steal the de Kooning, their nephew, Ron Roseman, shared his theories related to how the couple might have justified such a crime.
“Either they really thought it was a victimless crime or they could care less who it affected,” Roseman told the Republic. “I could see it both ways. For both of them.”
On Friday evening, Miller is attending a reception at the University of Arizona Museum of Art celebrating the return of the de Kooning. Upon reflecting on her friendship with Rita, “I have mixed feelings,” Miller told The Daily Beast. “I’m confused, but I don’t find myself being angry with her.”