Stolen painting worth estimated $160M found behind bedroom door

PHOTO: The recovered painting by Willem de Kooning is readied for examination by UA Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt.PlayUniversity of Arizona
WATCH Stolen painting worth estimated $165M found behind bedroom door

A painting appraised at $160 million is back where it belongs after it was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum Of Art more than 30 years ago in a theft that is still a mystery to investigators, according to ABC affiliate WFAA.

“If this painting could talk, she would have a magnificent story to tell us,” University of Arizona Police Chief Brian Seastone told WFAA.

It’s a tale that starts with a Willem de Kooning oil on canvas original called "Woman Ochre." The painting hung proudly at the university for more than 20 years before it was stolen in 1985.

According to WFAA, a couple somehow talked their way into the museum before it was open for the day. The woman distracted the museum security guard while the man walked upstairs and used a blade to cut the painting from its frame.

It is believed that the painting was rolled up and tucked under one of the thieves’ coats, according to WFAA. There were no surveillance cameras at the museum at the time.

“It was a very traumatic event for the institution and the people that lived through it,” Meg Hagyard, UAMA interim director, told WFAA.

Where did the painting go?

“If you look at art across the country, the world, that’s been stolen, there’s a couple reasons it gets found,” Seastone told WFAA. “Either somebody dies and someone comes across it, it gets sold, or someone brings some information forward. One of the three happened.”

After Rita and Jerome “Jerry” Alter passed away in Cliff, New Mexico, their nephew Ron Roseman executed their estate. That included selling their art to an antique dealer for $2,000.

Among that art collection was a painting the Alters kept tucked away behind their bedroom door: the de Kooning original.

Once it was put on display, customers at Manzanita Ridge Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, started recognizing the painting almost immediately, according to WFAA. By the time a third customer asked about it, the shop co-owner knew the painting needed to be kept under lock and key.

“We were afraid someone would bash it or flick paint off it so that’s when we decided we would pick it up and stick it somewhere safe,” David Van Auker, the antique shop co-owner, told WFAA, “and the only door we had in the store that locked was the bathroom door. So, we kind of slipped it in next to the toilet and locked the door.”

Van Auker searched the internet and found a 2015 article in USA Today about a stolen painting that looked a lot like the painting in his shop, so he called the University of Arizona’s museum.

"I had daydreams of getting that phone call, of someone calling up or someone mysteriously sending a package and the painting being inside of it,” Olivia Miller, a curator for UAMA, told WFAA. “I don't think I honestly thought it would actually happen."

Within 36 hours, UAMA had a team going from Arizona to New Mexico to check it out. Miller told WFAA the painting was propped up against a wall in a home for safekeeping.

The investigation

The mystery of what happened to de Kooning’s “Woman Ochre” has haunted Seastone for more than 30 years.

“So, 32 years later I got to see the tears of joy and happiness as it really did come home,” Seastone told WFAA.

Seastone said the FBI is now heading the investigation into the brazen heist, adding that he could not comment or speculate about any possible thieves.

That didn’t stop the speculation from people like the antique shop's co-owner Buck Burns, who told WFAA he believes the Alters were involved in the theft.

“My personal thought, and it may be totally wrong, but when I first saw where the painting was hanging in the house, it was for their private display,” Burns told WFAA. “Not for anybody else. It was hung behind that door and when that door was open nobody could see it.”

However, Roseman told WFAA he doesn’t want to believe his aunt and uncle were involved in the heist.

“I just can't imagine that they would,” Roseman told WFAA. “That wasn't the aunt and uncle that I knew.”

“It’s my favorite aunt and uncle,” Roseman said. “You know I couldn’t imagine … you know scenarios running through my head and where could they have possibly found this painting.”

One last clue

Adding to the mystery is a book of short stories Jerry Alter wrote entitled “The Cup and the Lip,” according to WFAA. In it, there's a tale with details eerily similar to the art theft.

He wrote a fictional story about a woman and her daughter who steal a 120-carat jewel from a museum while a guard is distracted. The two flee in a getaway car as the guard chases after them.

When the two return home, the jewel is hung behind a secret wall panel in their home so only they can view it.

But though the answer to how the Alters came to obtain the painting may have died with them, "Woman Ochre" is back where it belongs.

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