The Odd Painting

In June 2017, Rita Alter, a retired New York teacher, passed way in Cliff, New Mexico, a small community of just under 300 people approximately 30 miles (48 km) West of Silver City, NM. Her nephew contacted Manzanita Ridge Antique Furniture to take a look at the contents of the house, and in doing so one of the workers, David Van Auker, found a painting hanging oddly behind the door of Rita and her also deceased husband, Jerry. After buying the contents of the house and bringing it to their store in Silver City (a community with a high number of artists and art enthusiasts, which will become important in a moment), they put it on display inside the store, at which point several customers immediately recognized it as a piece by Willem de Kooning, a Dutch American abstract artist from the early 20th century.

Van Auker, realizing he had a major find on his hands when at least one customer offered to buy the painting for $200,000, he hid the painting in the store bathroom (the only room with a lock) while he Googled de Kooning, at which point he discovered the painting was in fact the stolen painting Woman-Ochre, a 1955 abstract painting worth in the neighborhood of $100 to $160 million and taken from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona in 1985 by a pair of thieves matching the Alters’ description. After several days (including, allegedly, a sleepless night for Van Auker as he sat “scared out of my mind” on his living room sofa, rifle in hand and the painting hidden behind the sofa itself) a team of FBI agents from the Phoenix field office alongside a team from UAMA headed by the museums curator, Olivia Miller, arrived in Silver City and officially identified the painting as Woman-Ochre. In the ensuing 7 years the painting as been restored, and is currently on display at the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles before it will be moved back to UAMA to be displayed in its original place.

Now we fast forward to last month, February of 2024, when it was announced that a California writer, Lou Schachter, had identified two more paintings, “Indian in a War Bonnet” by J. H. Sharp and “Fall Landscape” by Victor Higgins, were themselves stolen, this time from the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico, also in 1985. *Lou had become obsessed with the case after seeing it online and, going through the catalogue of items and checking them against various databases of reported stolen art in the southwest, he matched the two paintings mentioned above to the unsolved theft in Taos.

So who the hell were Jerry and Rita Alter? Unfortunately, even for people who knew them the answer seems to be “we really don’t know”.

Herman Jerome “Jerry” Alter (1930-2012) and Sara Rita Alter nee Sinofsky (1935-2017) were a seemingly normal couple, living in Closter, New Jersey and commuting to Manhattan where Jerry, a professional Jazz player, taught music at P.S. 187, and Rita was a speech pathologist until 1967, when Jerry left his position because he was passed over for a promotion, and then ultimately retired early in 1977 at the age of 47, at which point they bought the now famous property in Cliff and built a 1,700 square foot ranch house, supposedly with an inheritance from Rita’s mother.

In retirement they traveled extensively, visiting 145 countries including both Polar Regions. This has lead to on going speculation that the pair might have stolen more than just the three paintings discovered in their home, helped along by the fact that Rita, at the time of her death, had more than a million USD in her bank account.

Unfortunately the FBI is keeping tight lipped at the moment, so we may never know if they are suspected in other heists or if they had suspected accomplices. I will link below to some further reading on the subject, but I also recommend anyone wanting to look further into this to watch the documentary The Thief Collector that goes into much further detail than I did here.

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