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The Great Art Heist: Rita, Jerry, and the $160 Million Painting

Credit: iStock

Parker Wallis 

The new documentary The Thief Collector tells the tale of married couple Rita and Jerry Alter and how they stole a Willem de Kooning painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985.

The documentary’s director Allison Otto has been fascinated with the couple’s story ever since she read a 2018 Smithsonian magazine article, eventually leading her to speak with the Alter’s family members. “I was haunted by this story for months after I first found out about it,” Otto says. “This is not your traditional true crime story.” 

After talking with their family members, Otto notes that Alters were “much more complicated” than she previously thought. She then set to create the documentary, going through 11,797 slides and hours of 8mm film footage from the family’s home video collections.

At a cursory glance, the Alters seem innocuous: Rita and Jerry lived in the New Mexico suburbs as a retired couple (Rita a former speech pathologist and Jerry a music teacher). Family snapshots show that they traveled 140 countries, despite earning public school teacher salaries, according to Danny Udero of Silver-City News. The mystery only deepens the more one looks into their personal lives. At the time of their passing (Jerry in 2012 and Rita in 2017), the couple had over $1 million dollars in their bank account. 

The couple was never officially linked to the crime, but a plethora of circumstantial evidence points to them. In 2018, Antonia Noori Farzan wrote in the Washington Post that the Alters resembled a composite sketch of the thieves. Rita owned a red coat similar to the woman thief, and the couple drove a red sports car, the same getaway car that matched the description. Furthermore, an 1985 picture of the Alters at Thanksgiving dinner placed them in the same city as the de Kooning painting the day before it was stolen: Tucson, AZ. 

The morning of the theft played out like a heist movie: a man and a woman entered the museum around 9 a.m. on November 29, 1985, according to a statement from the university. The woman spoke to the security guard while the man crept to the second floor, cut de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955) from its frame, rolled it up, and tucked it away under a garment. The couple swiftly left the museum around 15 minutes later. The museum had no surveillance cameras, and the thieves left no fingerprints. 

The FBI added Woman-Ochre to its list of most wanted stolen works after two years of dry leads, and over the years, its value skyrocketed. Worth $400,000 at the time of the theft, de Kooning’s painting today is valued around $160 million.  And where was the multi-million dollar masterpiece hiding all these years? Inside the Alters’ home hanging on a wall behind their bedroom door with a screw installed on the lower part of the wall to prevent the door from damaging their prize.

The mystery came to a surprising end after Rita’s passing when antique dealer David Van Auker acquired the contents of the Alters’ house for $2,000, as told by William K. Rashbaum for the New York Times in 2017. While the de Kooning painting hung on display in his store, many customers recognized the piece, and after doing a deep dive on Google and finding a 2015 Arizona Republic article detailing the theft, Van Auker contacted the University of Arizona Museum of Art, who then sent a team to authenticate and return the piece back to Tucson. 

In a 2017 statement, Van Auker expressed relief knowing that Woman-Ochre has returned to where she once was. “What it felt like to me was that Woman-Ochre was kidnapped from her home and she was shackled in this ugly frame for 31 years,” he said. “She was degraded, and now she’s free. I know it’s an object. I know that. But that’s what I truly felt. She was alive to me.”

And with that, Van Auker concluded a decades-long search for the missing de Kooning, and the names of Rita and Jerry Alter will live in art theft infamy.