Despite Leading Signs, Perpetrators of 1985 de Kooning Heist May Remain a Mystery

Sounds like an open and shut case, but is it?

The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by UA Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton (r), Exhibitions Specialist, and Kristen Schmidt, Registrar. University of Arizona Museum of Art

In season one of True Detective, Marty Hart, played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson, is speaking to two investigators about cracking a troublesome case. “You know the detective’s curse?” he asks. “The solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues.”

It is indeed a fear we face. As a result, we’re loath to discount what seems obvious, and we don’t believe in coincidences. Nothing is harder for an investigator than to look beyond what seems like an easy answer and to insist on digging deeper, especially in a case where lives aren’t at stake and it’s unlikely anyone will go to jail.

It is these maxims that make the current investigation into the recent recovery of a stolen Willem de Kooning painting—worth well over $100 million—so intriguing.

The facts of the recovery are these: After a widow named Rita Alter died earlier this summer, the executor of her estate, her nephew Ron Roseman, hired an antiques dealer named David Van Auker to look at the contents of Rita’s home in the tiny town of Cliff, New Mexico. As Van Auker and his partners photographed and catalogued Rita’s estate, they happened upon the painting, which they didn’t recognize, obscured by an open door in the bedroom. The dealer thought the painting interesting and bought it along with the rest of the Alter estate for around $2000.

When he displayed the mystery painting in his shop, it attracted a great deal of attention. So, he researched it and was shocked to find that it was a stolen de Kooning called Woman-Ochre, taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in a brazen daytime theft in 1985.

The theft was somewhat unusual in the annals of art heists in that one of the perpetrators was a woman. While she distracted a gallery guard who was just starting shift, her accomplice proceeded to the painting and quickly cut it from its frame, rolled the canvas, and secreted it under his coat. Minutes later, they were gone, having driven off in a rust-colored sports car.

The painting is part of de Kooning’s famed Women series, one in a group of masterworks he completed in the 1950s. Another painting from the series sold for $137.5 million in 2006. But Van Auker, unlike a number of other art scammers, sought only to have the painting returned to its rightful owners. He contacted the University of Arizona authorities and stored the painting safely. Soon, an art expert at the University of Arizona, Nancy Odegaard, authenticated the work. It is now being restored, safe and sound back at the museum.

Suspicion immediately was cast upon Rita Alter’s late husband. Jerry Alter was a well-educated musician and amateur author, having self-published a book of fact-based fictional accounts of the extensive travels he and his wife had made. In two seemingly damning tales, he writes of art thefts, one in which the thieves take advantage of a distracted guard in order to steal their target. His own description of his book on reads like a taunt: “There is a pervasive belief that righteousness will prevail, and justice will be meted out commensurately. But as in life, exceptions to this ideal occur, alas!”

Sounds like an open and shut case. He had the painting in his home, there for only two sets of eyes to see, to paraphrase his book. What’s more, Alter’s car seems like a match for the getaway vehicle. And the composite sketches of the perpetrators, provided by eyewitnesses, look, too some, to be matches for members of the Alter family.

There are no coincidences. Or are there?

Despite the compelling indicators that Jerry Alter was the mastermind of the theft, there are nagging questions about his culpability. First, composite drawings can be notoriously bad. One theory has Alter disguising himself as a woman and bringing his son along as his accomplice, and some who have seen the drawings identify similarities with a mishmash of the three Alters. But there are others who don’t see it at all. This makes perfect sense: with a few exceptions (Timothy McVeigh the most memorable), composite drawing don’t typically identify culprits. Rather, they are more useful in eliminating them. Moreover, they are frequently subject to confirmation bias, with viewers seeing what they want to see. This has proven true in the case I’m investigating. Hundreds of people identify the sketches of the two 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum thieves as hundreds of other people. None of them have been accurate.

And Alter’s son, according to his family, has a history of serious psychological troubles. Is it conceivable that in the three decades since the heist he has had the presence of mind not to have mentioned his complicity in an elaborate multimillion dollar art theft? Maybe.

Furthermore, the Alters were dedicated travelers. It’s quite believable that the painting was innocently picked up in one of the many locations to which they traveled, purchased from a shop owner like Van Auker who didn’t recognize the masterpiece.

And why would Alter travel 450 miles round-trip in order to steal this particular painting, using such a risky ruse? In the movies, disguising oneself as a woman might be plausible, but in the real world, it’s an incredibly fantastic and unlikely modus operandi, unprecedented among the thousands of art heists I’ve researched over my career. Furthermore, the painting was stolen on the day after Thanksgiving, a well-known difficult travel day. Making a 225-mile getaway drive seems dubious. As for the car, though the Alters did have a sports car, it was a red, not rust colored. Would witnesses mistakenly describe a red car as “rust-colored?” Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.

Though this is a tough case, I’m envious of the investigators from the FBI and University of Arizona Police Department who are trying to identify the perpetrators responsible for the heist. The statute of limitations has expired, and there’s no one alive left to charge with possession of stolen property. In the case I am investigating, we have the opposite problem: we believe we know who was behind the heist, but the art remains missing. For the UA Museum of Art, the relief of knowing the painting is back home must be the ultimate comfort; the identity of the perpetrators, by comparison, is a frustration-free whodunit.

Anthony Amore is an internationally recognized expert in the field of art crime. His experience includes serving as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s chief investigator into the world’s largest art theft, and leadership roles with the Department of Homeland Security. He runs Copley Research and he has published two books. He is on Twitter @anthony_m_amore. Despite Leading Signs, Perpetrators of 1985 de Kooning Heist May Remain a Mystery