CBS Local — The curious case of a stolen painting recovered in New Mexico continues to baffle investigators who are trying to figure out who stole it over 30 years ago.
The Willem de Kooning masterpiece turned up in a Silver City antique shop in August after it was swiped from the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art. The painting, called “Woman Ochre,” has been valued at $165 million.
The painting’s wild ride through the southwest started on Black Friday in 1985 when a couple reportedly distracted a security guard at the Arizona museum and cut the famous work out of its frame.
“Staff that worked here at the time still haven’t recovered from the feeling of loss,” current curator Olivia Miller told KRQE.
The piece wasn’t seen again until a recent estate sale, where the multi-million-dollar painting was found hanging behind a bedroom door in New Mexico. Not knowing it was a de Kooning original, the Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antique Shop bought the painting for just $2,000.
“It was recognized by one of our customers,” said co-owner Buck Barns said.
The painting’s former owners, Rita and Jerry Alter, had both passed away and their possessions were reportedly being auctioned off by the couple’s nephew. Once the painting’s true origin was revealed, the FBI began to investigate how the Alters got their hands on a $165 million piece of art.
According to Mr. Barns, the Alters may have actually been the same couple who stole the painting 32 years ago in Arizona. “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,” Barns told KRQE reporters.
Another new clue into the couple’s possible double-life is a short story written by Jerry Alter. The tale reportedly described two people who stole a jewel and hid it for their own personal view, much like the painting behind their bedroom door.
The FBI is still looking into who the true thieves may have been. Willem de Kooning’s “Woman Ochre” is now back in Arizona’s Museum of Art.
“It’s closure for an injustice that happened 30 years ago,” said the museum’s Registrar Kristin Schmidt.