The recent recovery of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” 32 years after it was stolen raised as many questions as it answered, including the motive for the heist.
NEW YORK —
Willem de Kooning completed “Woman-Ochre” in 1955. It depicts a defiantly naked figure facing the viewer, arms akimbo. At the time, de Kooning had a studio in Greenwich Village, where his artistic vision — not to mention his quiet charm and energetic drinking — made him a figure of renown on the art scene.
Three years after de Kooning finished the painting, a benefactor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson bought it for the institution. And 27 years after that, in 1985, it was stolen — cut from its frame.
It was recovered last month, and investigators are focusing on several theories. One of them is, in its own way, extraordinary: They are trying to determine if the heist was engineered by a retired New York City schoolteacher who donned women’s clothing and took his son along as his accomplice, and then hung the masterwork in the bedroom of his own rural New Mexico home, where it remained.
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In other words, they are examining whether he stole a painting now valued at more than $100 million simply so he could enjoy it.
The teacher, Jerome Alter, died in 2012, and his wife, Rita, this summer. Both were 81 years old.
“My driving instinct is to say: ‘This couldn’t be my aunt and uncle who had it since the beginning,’ ” said Ron Roseman, Rita Alter’s nephew. “But, well gosh, it’s like I said, I’m as clueless as everybody else. It’s hard to believe that they were that — I don’t know what the word for it is.”
Roseman, who lives in Houston and is the executor of his aunt’s estate, said he was mystified as to how the painting had ended up in his aunt and uncle’s quirky one-story pink ranch-style house in Cliff, a hamlet of barely 300 people some 225 miles from the museum in Tucson.
Pair attract attention
It was the day after Thanksgiving 1985. An older woman and a younger man walked into the museum about 9 a.m. A security guard had just unlocked the glass doors to admit an arriving employee, whom the pair followed inside. The sky was overcast and it was 55 degrees; both visitors wore heavy winter coats.
A few minutes later, the two left in such haste that they attracted the attention of staff members. One museum employee hurried up the steps to the second-floor gallery, where the man had spent less that 10 minutes while his companion asked a security guard about another piece of art.
The 40-by-30-inch de Kooning painting was gone. Investigators believe the man cut it from its frame and rolled up the canvas and stuffed it under his heavy blue coat while the woman distracted the guard, who could not see the gallery from the landing where they had talked. The two drove away in a rust-colored two-door car. At the time, “Woman-Ochre” was valued at $400,000.
It was a highly unusual crime. Despite the depiction of art heists in movies and television, a vast majority involve works taken from storage areas by employees or people in a position of trust. With few leads beyond a description of the thieves — and sketches of the pair prepared by an FBI artist based on witness accounts — the crime became an enduring mystery.
“We’re looking at everything — absolutely,” said Brian Seastone, the University of Arizona police chief, when asked about whether investigators were looking into the possibility that Jerome Alter and his son, Joseph, were involved in the theft. He would not say what other avenues were being pursued. The university Police Department is assisting the FBI with the case; Chief Seastone was involved in the initial investigation in 1985, when he was a police officer with the department.
Jill McCabe, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Phoenix, would not comment other than to say that the bureau has “an active and ongoing investigation into the theft.” The inquiry is being conducted by agents in the Tucson office, with the assistance of the agency’s Art Crime Team in New York.
The sketch of the female suspect — described at the time of the theft as being between 55 and 60 years old — bears a resemblance to Jerome Alter, who was known as Jerry and was then 54. The sketch of the young man — described at the time as between 25 and 30 years old — bears a resemblance to his son, Joseph M. Alter, who was then 23. Around that time, the Alters had a red two-door Nissan sports car, according to a family member, a family friend and owner of a gas station less than a mile and half from the Alter home.
Witnesses described the woman as having blondish red shoulder-length hair, covered by a scarf of the same color. She wore tan polyester bell-bottom slacks and a red water-repellent winter coat.
The man was described as having an olive complexion, dark wavy hair and a mustache. He wore heavy framed glasses and a blue water-repellent winter coat with a hood.
Joseph Alter, now 55, who has lived in Silver City, New Mexico, about 30 miles from Cliff, could not be reached for comment. Several people who knew his parents, and Roseman, said Joseph has had severe psychological problems since the mid-1980s and has been in and out of mental institutions. Roseman said he was currently hospitalized.
During one of several telephone interviews in recent days, Roseman noted that some people with whom he has spoken, including friends, see the resemblance and some do not.
Roseman said he did not see the resemblance in the sketches, but added, “I’m not objective about it, so when I look at it, honestly, I’m not seeing it — but I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m objective or not.”
M.J. Burns, a Grant County, New Mexico, sheriff’s deputy who has patrolled Cliff and the surrounding rural communities for more than a decade, recalled the Alters as polite, well-spoken but private people who never had trouble with the law. But he said that after the news media reported the discovery of the de Kooning in the couple’s home, some longtime residents of the area concluded the sketch of the woman more closely resembled Rita Alter and that the sketch of the younger man resembled her husband.
Jerome Alter’s sister, Carole Sklar, 81, an artist who lives in New Jersey, scoffed at the notion that either her erudite, cultured brother or his sweet, gentle wife — let alone their troubled son — had been involved in the theft. She called it “absurd” and said the notion that her brother would dress in women’s clothing was laughable.
“That Jerry and Rita would risk something as wild and crazy as grand larceny — risk the possibility of winding up in prison, for God’s sake — they wouldn’t do that,” she said.
The Alters built their three-bedroom house, set on 20 acres of rugged scrub brush on a mesa overlooking a mountain valley, after they moved to New Mexico in the late 1970s. They surrounded it with landscaped gardens, a large swimming pool and an unlikely collection of sculptures, including a semicircle of more than a dozen busts of the likes of Beethoven and Molière, each mounted on a stone pedestal.
In addition to teaching music in a New York City school in Washington Heights, Manhattan, Jerome Alter also worked as a professional clarinetist before retiring to Cliff. Rita Alter worked for a number of years as a speech pathologist in the public schools in Silver City.
The couple, who people in Cliff said largely kept to themselves, were avid travelers, having visited more than 140 countries on all seven continents, according to a book of fictionalized short stories based on their trips that Jerome Alter self-published in 2011. (Alter also published two other books, and with his wife, a collection of poetry and a selection of Aesop’s fables, which was set to verse.)
David Van Auker, an antiques and furniture dealer whom Roseman hired to appraise the contents of the Alters’ home, discovered the painting. He and his two business partners went to the house Aug. 2 to photograph and catalog the furniture and other items for sale after Rita Alter’s death.
He found “Woman-Ochre” hanging between a corner of the bedroom and the door, he said, situated so it was completely obscured when the door was open, but visible from the bed when the door was closed.
While he didn’t recognize it as a masterwork, he liked it and ended up buying the contents of the house for roughly $2,000, he said. He took the painting back to their store in Silver City, and that day, several patrons who saw it on the floor said they thought it was a de Kooning.
Some determined Google searching turned up photographs of the stolen artwork and an Arizona Republic story from 2015 about the 30th anniversary of the theft. Van Auker called the museum that evening, and a day later, a Friday, a team of excited staffers — including a curator, an archivist and the interim director — were in Silver City examining the painting. They took it back to Tucson, and preliminary work was done to authenticate it.
It was a very emotional homecoming at the museum, which had been hoping for nearly 32 years to get “Woman-Ochre” back.
“This is a moment the institution has been talking about and thinking about since the painting was stolen,” said Meg Hagyard, the institution’s interim director.
If Alter had a role in the theft, he may have hidden clues in his own writing. He included two stories about thefts from museums in the United States in his book based on the couple’s travels, “The Cup and the Lip.” And while a number of aspects of the tales differ from the 1985 heist, there are notable similarities.
In one story, “The Eye of the Jaguar,” a grandmother and her granddaughter steal a 120-carat emerald from a display case in broad daylight, striking when a guard’s attention is focused elsewhere. “Having made their escape with no witnesses present, the thieves left absolutely no clues which the police could use to even begin a search for them!” he wrote.
He ends the story by describing how the stolen gem was later kept in a hidden display case, apparently in the grandmother’s home, “several miles from the place where this event transpired.”
“And two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see,” he wrote.