Decades-long stolen painting cold case finally solved
February 08, 2018 10:03 PM
SILVER CITY, N.M. -- Hidden in the sea of treasures at the Manzanita Ridge Antique Shop sat an abstract expressionist masterpiece called "Woman-Ochre" by famed artist Willem de Kooning.
Valued at nearly $160 million, it was missing for 32 years.
This story actually begins in Tucson, Arizona over Thanksgiving weekend in 1985. That weekend, a man and woman walked into the University of Arizona's art museum and stole de Kooning's painting.
Brian Seastone is the police chief now. In 1985, he was the lead investigator.
"Apparently they had some kind of Exacto knife, cut it completely out," he said.
There was no surveillance footage in those days, only eyewitnesses. Those witnesses told police that woman, with "Woman-Ochre" in hand, just walked right out of the front door.
Weeks later, the University of Arizona Police Department put out a sketch of a getaway car and suspect descriptions, including a woman in a red coat.
Then, nothing. Weeks turned into years turned into decades. The cold case looked more like a frozen case.
"It was a priority, we just didn't have any leads over the years," Seastone said.
Then in August 2017, Manzanita Ridge owner David Van Aucker got a call. The nephew of a couple who had recently died had hoped to sell all of the belongings inside their home. Reluctantly, he bought the estate.
That estate sale in Cliff -- about 40 miles outside of Silver City -- the home belonged to Jerry and Rita Alter. Behind the door of the Alters' bedroom, Van Aucker found the interesting painting but had no idea what he had just purchased.
"We just thought it was a study, and a poorly framed study at that," he said.
He loaded the "Woman-Ochre" onto a truck and, with much of the Alters' belongings, found a nook-and-cranny in the shop to place it.
"It probably had not been in the store an hour before the first person came in and walked up to it and looked at it and said, 'I think this is a real de Kooning,'" Van Aucker said. "Of course, we just brushed that off."
But then another asked the same question. And another. And another. Van Aucker had to know. Did he have a real de Kooning in his shop?
"I looked on the computer to see if we had a real de Kooning, and that's when we found the article," Van Aucker said. "And then it went from, Yay, we have a real de Kooning' to 'Oh, my God. We have a stolen de Kooning.'"
That article came from an Arizona newspaper highlighting the cold case. Van Aucker immediately called the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
"I got a student receptionist and I said, 'I need to speak to somebody. I think I have a piece of stolen art from you.' And she said, 'What piece?' And I said the de Kooning," Van Aucker said. "There's a silence and then 'Hold please."
Where had "Woman-Ochre" been for 32 years? Who took her? Signs point to Rita and Jerry Alter.
Looking at these photos found in the estate sale of the couple, Rita is shown wearing a red coat just like the one in the suspect drawing.
In the Alters' day planner from 1985, they took meticulous notes about what they ate, where they went, and the medications they had. On Thanksgiving 1985, they mysteriously left it blank. This isn't an open and shut case?
"Absolutely not," Seastone said. "It took us 32 years to get here and it will take some time before we can be real confident in closing the case."
Seastone isn't ready to say whodunit ... yet. He focuses the moment museum staff laid eyes on a piece all of them had heard about but had never seen for themselves in real life.
Woman-Ochre was carefully placed in a crate and under FBI protection driven from Silver City to Tucson. Days later, museum staff authenticated the painting by fitting into the original frame it was cut from.
In a true Cinderella slipper moment, it fit.
"The day of the theft, I saw tears of disappointment and shock. And when this thing returned to us, they were the tears of joy," Seastone said. "I always had the feeling since Day 1 we would see this painting again. I just didn't know how long it would take."
Updated: February 08, 2018 10:03 PM
Created: February 08, 2018 08:00 PM
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