It’s been a strange week in the art world. A 128-year-old grasshopper was discovered buried in layers of paint in Van Gogh’s 1885 oil painting, Olive Trees (the artist was famous for his fondness for painting en plein air); a ’90s pop princess sold her elementary-level painting at auction for a tidy $10,000 (although the proceeds did go to charity); and the newest social media craze became the thousands enthralled by a video showing the painstaking cleaning and restoration of an antique painting.
But the biggest whopper of all were new details that turned up in the case of the lost—and found—de Kooning painting.
In 1985, Woman-Ochre was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art during opening hours. Thirty-two years later, the $165-million masterpiece wasn’t discovered tucked away in the mansion of a mafioso or for sale on the black market; it was found hanging demurely behind the bedroom door of an elderly couple in rural New Mexico.
The full story of who stole Woman-Ochre and where it has been for the past three decades remains shrouded in mystery. But clues continue to pop up, each more tantalizing than the next.
The story begins in 1955, when Willem de Kooning was living in Greenwich Village and completing the last of his paintings in a series known as “Women.”
These abstract-expressionist figures became some of his most well-known works, and they fetched similarly impressive numbers at auction. In 2006, David Geffen sold the last privately held “Woman” to Steven A. Cohen for $137.5 million.
In 1958, three years after Woman-Ochre was finished, the piece was bought by a benefactor of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where it became one of the stars of the museum’s art collection.
For 27 years, visitors to the university museum could see the painting hanging in pride of place on the second floor. But that all changed in 1985 on the day after Thanksgiving.
Just before the 9 a.m. opening, a security guard noticed two patrons—a man and a woman—waiting for the doors to be unlocked. He opened the door for a museum employee, who the couple followed inside. The woman distracted the guard, while the man casually made his way upstairs, where he cut the de Kooning from its frame. The two quickly left having been in and out in under 15 minutes.
Their hasty retreat raised suspicions and the guard decided to take a look around. What he found—or didn’t find, as it were—at the top of the stairs was the stuff of museum horror stories.
“It was almost a hollow experience because it was so empty,” Brian Seastone, who had been a campus security officer at the time, told NPR in 2015. “Not only is this painting missing on this wall, it was just a very quiet scene.”
The police were called in and sketches of the suspects made, but no concrete leads turned up. The museum didn’t have security cameras at the time, and the couple had managed to get away without leaving fingerprints or any other identifying information behind.
All authorities had to go on was a broad description of the couple—the woman was a bit older and had a scarf tied around her head; the man had dark hair and a mustache.
These details didn’t give the authorities much to work with, and the reality of the situation soon sunk in. The prized piece of the university’s museum had disappeared without a trace.
While Woman-Ochre was on the lam, Ron Roseman was growing up captivated by the stories of his aunt and uncle. Rita and Jerome Alter were school teachers who loved to travel the world—they would check off 140 countries and seven continents over their lifetime—and recount stories of their adventures to their nephew. When they were home, they lived in a pink, one-story house in the small town of Cliff, New Mexico, that was filled with treasures from their travels.
“I liked that they were interesting,” Roseman told WFAA. “They always had something interesting to say. My uncle could tell stories all day long.”
After Rita died earlier this summer at the age of 81, four years after her husband passed at the same age, Roseman began the task of settling their affairs. He cleaned out the pink ranch house, selling the art and artifacts to a local antique dealer for $2,000. Among the treasures David Van Auker picked up for a steal was a 40-by-30-inch painting that Roseman found hanging behind the couple’s bedroom door.
Van Auker thought it was an interesting piece, so he decided to display it front and center in his store. But within just a few hours, he started to suspect that there may be more to the painted lady after four different customers mentioned that the work looked like a genuine de Kooning.
Van Auker did a little Googling and uncovered a shocking secret—the painting casually displayed in his window might just be the missing de Kooning masterpiece.
He immediately called the museum, and the very next day museum employees drove to his home in the neighboring state to take a look. The trip turned into an emotional reunion with their long-lost Woman-Ochre.
“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,” Van Auker told The University of Arizona news. “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.”
The de Kooning made its grand homecoming in early August, and it was re-installed at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, where its original frame had hung empty for the past three decades as a reminder of the loss and a hope for its return.
The masterpiece may have been restored to its proper place—this time watched over by armed guards—but the questions about its journey to get there were just beginning.
Were the cute, if a little eccentric, elderly couple from New Mexico secretly big-time brazen art thieves?
“My driving instinct is to say: ‘This couldn’t be my aunt and uncle who had it since the beginning,’” Roseman told The New York Times. “But, well gosh, it’s like I said, I’m as clueless as everybody else. It’s hard to believe that they were that—I don’t know what the word for it is.”
As investigators began to take a closer look at the evidence, they locked on the police sketch of the older woman. Some thought her resemblance to Jerome was striking.
As for her younger male accomplice, they suggested it could have been the Alters’ son, Joseph, who Roseman says is currently hospitalized (according to acquaintances of his parents, he has struggled with psychological issues since the mid-’80s). Adding to the evidence was the discovery that the Alters owned a red Nissan sports car at the time, the same make and color that was used as the getaway car.
Not everyone agrees with the resemblance of the sketches or the likelihood that the Alters were the culprits. Roseman told The New York Times that he didn’t “see the resemblance,” although he conceded that he’s not an objective observer in this case. And Jerome’s sister rejected the idea that her beloved brother and his wife could have committed—or been complicit—in such a crime.
As police continue their investigation, they have uncovered one last piece of the puzzle that adds another layer of intrigue. In addition to being a teacher, Jerome also wrote fiction and one of his short stories, “The Eye of the Jaguar,” bears an uncanny resemblance to real-life events.
While the contraband in question in the story is a valuable emerald, not a work of art, a grandmother-granddaughter duo steal the piece from under the watchful eye of a museum guard and disappear without a trace. Having gotten away with their crime, they keep their prize at home, where it is enjoyed by “two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see.”
Whether the story is a striking coincidence or a smoking gun, Woman-Ochre is back where the eyes of the public can now enjoy her. But as she hangs in pride of place at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, she continues to keep her secrets about her three-decades-long adventure, the truth of which may have been taken to the grave.