The FBI is now involved in the search for two Western paintings stolen nearly 40 years ago from a museum and last seen in Scottsdale.

The paintings are tied to one of the biggest stolen art mysteries in recent history, found in the same home as a stolen Willem de Kooning painting. That painting, titled Woman-Ochre, was recovered in 2017 and is worth more than $100 million. Law enforcement didnt realize at the time that the de Kooning was not the only piece of stolen art in the home.

The paintings went practically unnoticed among the belongings of a seemingly ordinary retired couple, Jerry and Rita Alter, who lived in rural Cliff, New Mexico.

After the Alters died, the de Kooning wound up in an antique store in 2017 in nearby Silver City, whose owners quickly realized it was stolen and returned it to the University of Arizona, where it has been stolen in 1985.

The two Western paintings, by contrast, were donated by the estate to a non-profit thrift store, also in Silver City. They werent recognized as stolen and were auctioned off in Scottsdale to benefit the non-profit.

We dont know where the paintings are today, said Lou Schachter, a crime and travel writer for Medium, an online publication.

He was the first to connect the dots that the paintings auctioned in Scottsdale were the same ones stolen from the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, in 1985.

Schachter detailed his findings in a recent story, prompting a nationwide hunt for the stolen treasures.

David Witt was the museums curator when the paintings were stolen.

The day they were taken, he was away from the museum, in Santa Fe ironically attending a seminar about museum security. The museum occupied the second floor off a two-story building; a library was on the ground floor. Only two staffers were there that day, he said.

One was the librarian, who went upstairs to turn off the lights at the end of the day. He noticed the paintings were gone, yanked from the wall with such force that the bottom frame of one of the paintings Aspens by Victor Higgins was broken off. Another painting, originally titled Oklahoma Cheyenne, by Joseph Henry Sharp, was also gone. The Sharp painting was valued at $35,000; the Higgins at $12,500.

The librarian told police he remembered seeing a man with a mustache and wearing a black raincoat, leave the museum. The raincoat reference is eerily similar to witness descriptions of the de Kooning theft at the University of Arizona, which would happen six months later. In that theft, one of the thieves wore a trench coat.

Taos police found little evidence besides the broken frame. The Harwood, like other museums at the time, had no video cameras.

“The loss of Higgins and Sharp at the same time was a pretty major blow for us, Witt said.

For years, he searched through Western art auction catalogues, thinking the stolen works might show up for sale.

But of course, they never did, he said.

Fast Forward to 2017.

Thats when the executor of Jerry and Rita Alters estate, their nephew Ron Roseman, cleared out their house to prepare it for sale after the death of his aunt. He dropped off the two Western paintings along with boxes of other household goods to a non-profit thrift store in nearby Silver City.

The two Western paintings werent recognized as stolen. So the non-profit arranged to sell them through the Scottsdale Art Auction. The Sharp painting sold for $52,650; the Higgins landscape went for $93,600.

The Scottsdale Art Auction declined an interview request from ABC15 but said in a statement:

We do our due diligence to prevent the sale of stolen goods, which we have not experienced to date. At the time of taking these two works on consignment, we checked the FBIs National Stolen Art File and neither painting was listed nor are they listed today. We will cooperate completely with the FBI in this matter.

Margot Cravens, a spokeswoman for the FBI Albuquerque Division, confirmed the FBIs involvement in the case of the Hardwood Museum paintings.

But given the ongoing nature of the investigation, it would not be appropriate to discuss the FBI’s processes at this time, she said in a statement.

The museum has formed a task force aimed at recovering the stolen paintings.

It would be amazing to get these works back, said the Juniper Leherissey, the museums executive director.

She said the paintings absolutely could still be in Arizona or even overseas. Its also possible the art has passed through multiple owners, none of them aware they bought stolen art.

For Schachter, the writer, the story wont be complete until the paintings are found and returned.

This auction was only five or six years ago, said Schachter as he spoke from downtown Scottsdale only a recent day, only steps from the gallery where the paintings were once auctioned.

So it shouldnt be too hard to find out who bought them, whether those people still have them or resold them.


Call the Harwood Museum at (

575) 758-9826 ext. 106 or email or the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or

Email ABC15 Investigator Anne Rymanat

, call her at 602-685-6345, or connect on X, formerly known as