Nation

A de Kooning, a theft, and an enduring mystery

Nathan Saxton and Kristen Schmidt readied Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” for examination in Phoenix.

University of Arizona via Associated Press

Nathan Saxton and Kristen Schmidt readied Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” for examination in Phoenix.

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.

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It was finally recovered last month, and investigators are focusing on several theories. And one of them is, in its own way, extraordinary: They are trying to determine whether the heist was engineered by a retired New York City schoolteacher — something of a renaissance man — 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.

In other words, they are examining whether he stole a painting now valued at in excess of $100 million simply so he could enjoy it.

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The teacher, Jerome Alter, and his wife, Rita, both died at 81, him in 2012 and her earlier this summer.

“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 completely 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.

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It was the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. An older woman and a younger man walked into the museum at 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 of the 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 than 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. And 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. At 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.

‘My driving instinct is to say: “This couldn’t be my aunt and uncle who had it.” ’

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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 being 25 to 30 years old, with 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, 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.

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 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 on 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 that 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 about $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 the following Monday, 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.

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