Why Would Two Ordinary People Steal a $160 Million Willem de Kooning Painting?

A new documentary tells the tale of a suburban New Mexico couple who allegedly stole the artwork just to hang it behind their bedroom door

Police sketches of the man and woman who stole Willem de Kooning's Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in November 1985
Police sketches of the man and woman who stole Willem de Kooning's Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in November 1985 University of Arizona

She was a retired speech pathologist, and he was a retired music teacher. For all intents and purposes, Rita and Jerry Alter were a totally normal couple living in the New Mexico suburbs—except for one thing. They had a stolen Willem de Kooning painting worth $160 million hanging behind their bedroom door.

The couple’s purported double lives as high-stakes art thieves has made headlines ever since their prized painting was identified as a missing de Kooning in 2017. Now, reports Vivie Behrens for the Austin Chronicle, a new documentary titled The Thief Collector attempts to answer the why of the story: namely, why would a husband and wife described by friends as “not exactly thrill-seekers,” in the words of ARTnews Alex Greenberger, pull off such a heist? And were the Alters hiding other, even darker secrets?

Directed by Allison Otto, the documentary premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month. As Otto tells the Austin Chronicle, she first came across the couple’s story in a 2018 Smithsonian magazine article. After digging into the mystery a bit more by speaking with the Alters’ family members, she realized that she’d stumbled onto a “much, much deeper story.” The Alters, she adds, were “much more complicated” than previously reported.

Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre, 1955
Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre, 1955 University of Arizona Museum of Art

“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. … [The documentary] makes you wonder how well do you really know those around you, and how far would you personally go for something that you covet?”

To create the documentary, Otto and a team of editors sorted through 11,797 slides and hours of 8 mm film footage from the family’s photography and home video collections. The snapshots showed a couple who’d somehow managed to travel to 140 countries on public school teaching salaries, according to Danny Udero of the Silver City Sun-News. They had over $1 million in their bank account at the time of their deaths. (Jerry died in 2012, while Rita died in 2017.) Interestingly, a picture of the Alters at a 1985 Thanksgiving dinner in Tucson, Arizona, placed them in the same city as the de Kooning painting the day before it was stolen.

The couple has never been officially linked to the artwork’s theft from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. According to a statement from the university, a man and a woman entered the museum around 9 a.m. on November 29, 1985. While the woman spoke with a security guard, the man went up to the second floor, where he cut de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955) from its frame, rolled it up and hid it under a garment. The pair quickly left the museum some 15 minutes after arriving, with the stolen painting in tow. Lacking solid leads two years after the theft, the FBI added Woman-Ochre to its list of most wanted stolen artworks.

Though the museum had no surveillance cameras and the thieves left no fingerprints at the scene, a fair amount of circumstantial evidence links the couple to the crime, wrote Antonia Noori Farzan for the Washington Post in 2018. The Alters resemble a composite sketch of the thieves. Rita owned a red coat that looked like the one the woman thief donned, and the couple drove a red sports car similar to the thieves’ getaway vehicle.

Rita and Jerry Alter
Circumstantial evidence links Rita and Jerry Alter to the 1985 heist. WFAA via YouTube

Shortly before his death, Jerry also published a collection of short stories that includes what appears to be a thinly veiled retelling of his and his wife’s adventures in art theft. Titled “The Eye of the Jaguar,” the story centers around a security guard responsible for protecting a famous emerald. An older woman and her granddaughter visit the museum, nab the emerald and stash it away in a place only they can see it.

Similarly, the Alters stashed their prize artwork on a wall behind their bedroom door, positioning it so that it could only be seen from the bed when the door was closed. A screw installed on a lower part of the wall ensured that the door wouldn’t hit the painting.

Part of de Kooning’s Woman series, the stolen painting was valued at $400,000 at the time of its theft and is worth around $160 million today—despite the Alters damaging the canvas when they stapled it into a new frame. The couple also touched up some of the distressed areas and added a layer of varnish in what Getty Museum conservator Laura Rivers describes to ARTnews as “a faint echo of what would’ve been done in a professional job.” Other works in the Woman series are housed at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, among other institutions.

Antique dealer David Van Auker acquired the contents of the Alters’ house for $2,000 after Rita’s death, reported William K. Rashbaum for the New York Times in 2017. When he hung Woman-Ochre up in his store, numerous customers told him that they thought it was a real de Kooning—a theory seemingly backed up by a 2015 Arizona Republic article about the theft that the dealer found on Google. Concerned that he’d purchased a stolen painting, Van Auker contacted the University of Arizona Museum of Art, which dispatched a team to authenticate the painting and bring it back to Tucson.

“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,” said Van Auker in a 2017 statement. “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.”