KOLD INVESTIGATES: Mystery of the stolen masterpiece

KOLD INVESTIGATES: Mystery of the stolen masterpiece

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - More than 30 years ago, a priceless painting was taken from a Tucson museum in a Hollywood-style heist.

Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art by an unknown man and woman the day after Thanksgiving in 1985.

The woman distracted a security guard while the man walked upstairs, cut the painting from its frame and stuffed it in his jacket before taking off in a rusty sports car.

The suspects were never captured and no one had any idea what happened to the piece of art.

An empty frame holds the edges of the missing artwork. (Source: Emily Litvack / UANews)

Happy Homecoming

That all changed last year.

David Van Auker, an antiques dealer from Silver City, NM, bought a painting at an estate sale and put it on display in a store he co-owned with Buck Burns and Rick Johnson.

The trio got a lot of comments from customers about it possibly being the missing de Kooning.

After some research, Van Auker was sure the painting was real so he called the museum and said he would like to return it.

Museum staff then traveled to Silver City and safely brought it back to Tucson in August 2017.

"That's what I love about Silver City, we have had so much support from our community when it comes from this," Burns said. "(According) to the rumor mill, we are loaded now because of this painting and it's not the case."

The artwork is worth an estimated $160 million, making it one of the most valuable in existence.

"You always think you will find something really cool," Burns said.

This story almost didn't have a happy ending. Before they found out what they had, the antiques shop tried to sell it.

"We probably would have sold it just like any other art here," Burns said. "It probably would of walked out of this store at 500 or 600 bucks."

Burns said they have no regrets about handing the painting over to the museum.

"This painting does not belong to us and yeah, it's back where it's supposed to be," he said.

(Source: Tucson News Now)

Looking for answers

The painting was back home, but there were still a lot of questions.

Mainly, who stole it and where had it been all these years.

Searching for answers, KOLD News 13's Kevin Adger headed to New Mexico.

Adger talked to some in the Silver City community and they pointed their fingers at Jerry and Rita Alter, a couple who lived about 30 minutes from Burns' antique shop.

The painting allegedly spent almost 30 years hanging from their bedroom door.

But why and how did it get there?

"They really didn't show too many people," Van Auker said. "It wasn't actually until the very end that people saw it. That's the usual story we heard from people who knew them."

Sketches of the art theft suspects. (Source: University of Arizona Art Museum)

One of those stories that stands out. It was a conversation the antique store owners had with the couple's caregiver.

Van Auker said the caregiver told them she had once asked Rita about a painting behind their door.

The caregiver told Van Auker, that Rita had told her the painting had once belonged to her husband, but it had been on display at a school.

Rita allegedly told the caregiver the school wouldn't give it back so one day she dressed up Jerry in her clothes and then her son Joseph and Jerry went to the school to take it back, according to Van Auker.

The most shocking possible connection to the painting came when Van Auker talked to a family member and then found the Alter's travel journal from 1985.

The week of Thanksgiving was blank. Remember the theft happened the day after Thanksgiving.

"We did find out from Jerry's sister that Rita, Jerry and their son Joseph were in Tucson for Thanksgiving," Van Auker said. "Rita's mother lived in Tucson in 1985."

Some people we talked with told us they believe the Alters have similar features as sketches of the suspects.

In a photo of Rita, you can see her standing in front of a rust-colored sports car. She's also wearing a red coat, which is what witnesses said the suspect was wearing at the museum.

"I suspected it anyway, but that was sort of like it for me especially seeing the car," Van Auker said.

Joseph and Rita Alter.

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