Ordinary New Mexico Couple Pulled Off $150 Million Art Theft

Jerry and Rita Alter were seen by friends and family as harmless eccentrics.

Known for loving exotic travel, they celebrated their travels with indulgent slideshows. Jerry was a jazz musician, unsuccessful artist, unpublished author, and retired New York public school teacher. Rita has made a career as a speech therapist. Nerdy statues, including pyramids made of brightly colored tiles, cluttered their backyard in the small town of Cliff, NM, while paintings of Jerry and the couple’s memorabilia filled the interior of the modest home.

But the Quirks had a secret: they were consummate art thieves.

This fact was revealed in 2017, after Rita died at 81 – Jerry had died in 2012 at the same age – when a local antique dealer came across a $150 million Willem de Kooning artwork. hung in the master bedroom of the deceased couple.

The stolen de Kooning was found hanging behind Jerry and Rita Alter’s bedroom door.
No one suspected Jerry, a retired teacher, and Rita, a speech therapist, of being thieves.
No one suspected Jerry, a retired teacher, and Rita, a speech therapist, of being thieves.

The 1955 painting, “Woman-Ochre”, was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 – by Jerry and Rita, it turned out.

As unveiled in a new documentary »The collector thief“, its whereabouts were an art-world mystery until the Quirks’ nephew Ron Roseman, the executor of their estate, asked a local antique dealer to scour the house for artifacts. value that might be salable.

“There was nothing great about it — except for one thing,” David Van Auker, co-owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture Antiques in Silver City, NM, told The Post.

Van Auker would know. He found the painting.

Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker are the owners of Manzanita Ridge Antique Shop, in Silver City, NM, where the provenance of the painting was discovered.
Buck Burns, Rick Johnson and David Van Auker are the owners of Manzanita Ridge Antique Shop, in Silver City, NM, where the provenance of the painting was discovered.
CHRIST CHAVEZ/The New York Times

Jerry’s blindingly bright abstract pieces “were so bad,” Van Auker recalls, he left them behind and picked up a lamp, a vase, and the De Kooning, not yet realizing what it was. “[My business parter] and I own a vacation rental in the mountains. I thought the paint would be good to put there. We wouldn’t even hang it in our own house.

The piece, which turned out to be “Woman-Ochre”, might have been relegated to a corner of the vacation property had not a sharp-eyed artist, James Cuetara, entered the shop. He recognized it as a masterpiece and immediately offered $200,000.

Assuming the customer was joking, Van Auker said, “Sold!”

Willem de Kooning
“Woman-Ocher” by Willem de Kooning is valued at $150,000,000.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

But the man was serious. “A bid of $400 or $450 would have won,” Van Auker said. “But James was honest from the start. He said he thought it was real and we should investigate it.

Van Auker took to Google and quickly spotted an article in the Arizona Republic about the theft of the painting.

“The day after Thanksgiving in 1985, a man and a woman walked into this little museum as soon as it opened,” Allison Otto, director of “The Thief Collector,” which is currently seeking distribution, told The Post. “The distracted woman [an employee] while the man entered a gallery, cut out the painting, folded it and put it under his jacket. They then disappeared into the desert with one of 20and the most precious paintings of the century.

It's unclear why Jerry and Rita took the painting - and why they kept it.
It’s unclear why Jerry and Rita took the painting – and why they kept it.

The man and woman, of course, were Rita and Jerry. What made the crime perfect was that the Quirks operated differently from typical criminals: they had no interest in selling the painting. So it never landed in an auction house or even slipped into a black market where it could have been traced back to them. No fingerprints were left behind. The theft was assumed to be contract work, with the work being stolen for a specific collector who had a particular need.

Stealing for themselves, Quirks were a rare type of art thief.

“They feel that since they care, they have the right to have these pieces; they are the most dangerous [thieves] and the hardest to capture,” says Bob Wittman, founder of the FBI’s Artistic Crime Squad, in the film. “They steal these materials, hide them, keep them only for their eyes. And these things go away for many years before they come back.

The de Kooning was removed from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
The de Kooning was removed from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
Google Maps

And that’s precisely what the Quirks did. Due to their discretion, they were the art thieves next door that even close friends and relatives did not suspect. The track went cold and the case was dropped in 1987 for lack of evidence.

Nonetheless, “Woman-Ocher” remained on the FBI’s Top 10 Crimes list.

Everything changed in 2017. A call was made to the museum. Curator Olivia Miller called the police, who contacted the FBI. A day later, the painting was reunited with its true guardians.

A police sketch of the suspects depicts the Quirks.
A police sketch of the suspects depicts the Quirks.

“Olivia started crying,” Van Auker said. “She was almost speechless.”

The work was a little less worn: the paint had peeled off when it had been hastily rolled up by Jerry. Surprisingly, the Quirks had the temerity to touch up the painting themselves. They also stapled the front of the work to a stretcher they had purchased. All this has caused damage which Ulrich Birkmaier, chief curator of paintings at the Getty Museum in Los Angelesnecessary to solve.

All the while, one question arose: who was this couple who pulled off the ultimate art theft?

Experts say thieves like Quirks, who keep their loot rather than sell it, are rare.
Experts say thieves like Quirks, who keep their loot rather than sell it, are rare.

Initially, theft was believed to be a one-time crime of opportunity. But then strange clues appeared.

On the one hand, there was Jerry’s unpublished collection of short stories, “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales”, which contained sagas supposedly based on his life experiences. Thinly veiled accounts of various thefts, including that of the de Koonings (via a story called “Thrill Seekers”), are in the book.

“I think there was an obsession with getting away with it,” Otto said. “The book shows Jerry committing nefarious acts and wanting to prove he’s smarter than the institutions.” At the time of Rita’s death, “they had over a million dollars in a bank account.

“It’s unlikely that a retired teacher and speech therapist in rural New Mexico could [legitimately] rack up over a million dollars,” added Otto.

The painting is now back in the museum.
The painting is now back in the museum.
Patrick Breen/The Republic
Its frame was left after Jerry cut out the painting.
Its frame was left after Jerry cut out the painting.
Patrick Breen/The Republic

Reinforcing a theory that the couple had committed other thefts – and possibly sold their ill-gotten gains on overseas trips – there were remains of their home which were considered worthless reproductions and which have ended up being donated, by Roseman, to a Silver City thrift store called Town and Country Garden Club.

“They arrived with a van full of stuff,” says Town & Country volunteer Harriet Rogers in the doc. “One of the teenagers came in with a bronze of Frederick Remington. He’s one of the most famous art sculptors in the western school! I said, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t take that We’re a thrift store. We sell things for $2 and $5” — but she took it anyway. “It was an amazing deal. My son took a painting of an Indian and said, ‘Oh, my lord, that’s a JH Sharp.’ JH Sharp is one of the most famous Western artists. My son called Sotheby’s and they were interested. This stuff was good enough for Sotheby’s.

According to Rogers, “the total intake [from Sotheby’s selling the goods] was $160,000. We received a check for $129,000.

As to whether or not the Quirks got the art through shady means, Rogers says, “The FBI came out and took pictures. [They said] it was not stolen.

In the document, however, Van Auker recalled something an FBI agent allegedly told him: “Just because we cleaned it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen.”

Quirks story told in new documentary
The story of the Quirks is told in the new documentary “The Thief Collector”, which has yet to be released.

Van Auker added to The Post: “It’s just not on their radar.”

As for how all of this shook up Jerry Alter, considered the mastermind, Van Auker thinks he’d feel oddly vindicated.

“Before all this, his art was unsaleable; now it’s the art of the art thief,” said Van Auker, who picked up the “so bad” pieces as soon as Alter became notorious. “There were 75 paintings and I sold 20 of them to a radio station owner in the Midwest for $5,000. He was fascinated by history. I have 13. And his book sells on Amazon” — at $54 for a paperback copy.

“Jerry was arrogant and selfish. He would think he finally got his due and wouldn’t be surprised,” Van Auker said. a smug look.”

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