Painting worth $165 million stolen 30 years ago found in New Mexico

Kooning artwork in bedroom. (KRQE)
Kooning artwork in bedroom. (KRQE)

SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a mystery that would make a great movie. A famous $165 million painting stolen from a museum more than 30 years ago, found inside a New Mexico couple’s home after their death.

It all began on the morning after Thanksgiving 1985 at the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art. University police said a man and a woman followed a museum staff member, the woman distracted the security guard, and the man used a blade to cut out the painting.

It was a Willem de Kooning called “Woman Ochre.”

“Staff that worked here at the time still haven’t recovered from the feeling of loss,” said Olivia Miller, Curator of Exhibits and Education for the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

She said realistically, she felt the painting would never come back, but in August, the famous painting wound up in the Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antique Shop in Silver City.

“It was recognized by one of our customers,” said Buck Burns, the co-owner Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques.

Burns and his business partner David purchased the painting for $2,000 from the estate of Rita and Jerry Alter of Cliff, New Mexico.

“We weren’t sure if it was an original. In the nature of our business we get a lot of what I call ‘touch prints,’” said Burns.

However, they quickly found out the painting was authentic. The Alters, both now dead, had it hanging in their bedroom behind the door, nearly invisible if you entered the room.

“My personal opinion, it was hung specifically and solely for them to enjoy,” said Burns.

He said people in the area said the couple collected art, and they had heard mostly positive things about the couple. He said most people found it hard to believe they could have stolen the painting.

“There were some FBI composite sketches done back, I think it was 32 years ago of what the people looked like… Yes, they do look very similar,” said Burns.

Another clue may be hiding in Jerry Alter’s writing. Alter penned a book of short stories titled, “The Cup and the Lip Exotic Tales.” According to reports by the New York Times and Architectural Digest, one of the fictional stories in the book titled “The Eye of the Jaguar,” Alter wrote about two people who stole a jewel and hid it for their own personal view.

The $165 million work of art is now back in Tucson, bringing relief to those that so desperately wanted it back.

“It’s closure for an injustice that happened 30 years ago,” said Kristin Schmidt, University of Arizona Museum of Art Registrar.

The FBI is investigating to finally figure out who stole the painting.

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