FBI looks into thrill-seeking New Mexico teachers alleged to have been global art thieves

Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre after it was recovered in 2017. Photograph: Robert Demers/AP

Jerry and Rita Alter, now deceased, are suspected of having stolen artworks in the 80s, including Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre

Last modified on 2024 May 04

The mystery of a nondescript, middle-aged couple who hung a stolen $150m Willem de Kooning painting behind a bedroom door in their Cliff, New Mexico, home may be closer to being resolved after the FBI agreed to assist in tracking down two other paintings that had been in the couple’s possession.

A new twist to the story of Jerry and Rita Alter, a pair of New Mexico teachers who somehow funded a life of travel and adventure to the point that they are suspected international art thieves, emerged recently when the US’s top federal law enforcement agency confirmed it was getting involved in the case.

The couple, both of whom are now dead, are believed to have conducted a series of art heists in the mid-1980s. In one, the couple allegedly walked into a Tucson, Arizona, museum and stole the de Kooning using a deceptive method. A woman distracted museum staff with questions while a man in a fake mustache lifted the painting off the wall, put it under his coat and walked out.

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The heist of Woman-Ochre was never decisively pinned on the Alters – the painting was recovered in 2017 after Rita died and now hangs back in Tucson. But the FBI’s involvement in another heist in the same year could help resolve questions about the Alters’ motives, if not their apparent system of theft.

According to their travel agent, who was interviewed for The Thief Collector, a 2022 documentary film about the couple, they were “adrenaline junkies” who loved to fly to one country and then pay smugglers to secret them to another.

According to the Taos News on 24 April, the second theft involves two stolen Taos Society of Artists paintings – Victor Higgins’ Aspens and Joseph Henry Sharp’s Indian Boy in Full Dress – from the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, in March 1985.

A woman in a wheelchair distracted the museum’s attendant by asking questions about the elevator while a man in a long black coat – not wearing a fake mustache in this instance – went upstairs to the second floor where the paintings were hung.

“Then he’s up there with a room full of paintings and can make as much noise as he wants – but he works fast,” former curator David Witt told the outlet. “By the time he’s done with his commotion up there, [the attendant] is back at the circulation desk – in time to hear Jerry run down the stairway.”

In a news report from the time, the paper said the heist had taken place while Witt had been attending a seminar on museum security in Santa Fe. A police report said there was “no physical evidence left at the scene”.

After Jerry Alter died in 2012, five years before his wife, their nephew cleared out the home and donated some items to the Town and Country Garden Club thrift store in Silver City. Customers at the store spotted the de Kooning and the Taos works were sold at auction in Arizona.

But now Taos’s Harwood Museum wants them back and has called in the FBI to help find them.

Harwood’s executive director, Juniper Leherissey, told the Taos News she thinks they were bought unwittingly.

“I don’t know if they’ve since been sold from that buyer, but likely someone purchased and has been living with them for many years,” Leherissey reportedly said. “Hopefully, they’ll recognize that they belong to the Harwood and give them back.”

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(For the source of this, and many other equally intriguing and important articles, please visit: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/article/2024/may/04/fbi-new-mexico-teachers-alleged-art-thieves/)

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