Willem de Koonings Woman-Ochre was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985.

After being missing for decades, it was found in 2017, by then valued at more than $100 million. But it wasnt the only painting found in the New Mexico estate of Jerry and Rita Alter, a seemingly ordinary retired couple, who may have stolen it.

There were at least two other valuable paintings in their estate by famous Western artists. Works by artists Joseph Henry Sharp and Victor Higgins were unknowingly donated after the Alters death to a non-profit and auctioned off in 2018.

Now the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos is looking into whether those two paintings are the same ones stolen from that museum in 1985.

The potential link was first discovered by Lou Schachter, a true-crime and travel writer for the online publication Medium. He recently wrote a three-part series about the de Kooning theft, unearthing a potentially stunning discovery.

As part of his research, he watched a 2022 documentary on the de Kooning theft, called The Thief Collector. A photo of Jerry Alter in the documentary caught his eye: Alter playing the clarinet in his New Mexico home. Behind him are two striking paintings. One is a Native American, the other a colorful landscape.

Curious, Schachter started researching the paintings, searching Google images.

He discovered the two oil paintings found in the Alters home were sold through Scottsdale Art Auction, an Arizona auction house, in 2018. The Sharp painting sold for $52,650; the Higgins landscape went for $93,600.

He also pored through online newspaper archives, looking for any thefts that matched the artists names.

I went through dozens, if not hundreds, of these articles, Schachter said.

One article caught his eye. It was a four-paragraph story in the

Taos News

that described the theft of a Sharp painting titled, Cheyenne Oklahoma, and a Higgins painting titled, Aspens, from the Harwood Museum. That theft happened in March 1985, just eight months before the de Kooning went missing in Tucson.

David Caffey, who was the museums director at the time, told ABC15 that the Harwood was a barebones operation then. It had no security guards, and no cameras.

The theft was a shock, he said. He still remembers how the paintings were ripped from the walls. The

Taos News

article says the thief pulled one painting off the wall but left part of the frame.

The Taos and Tucson thefts were eerily similar.

Both occurred in broad daylight.

A man walked into the Taos museum, pulled two paintings off the wall, hid them under a raincoat, and walked out, according to the

Taos News

. In the de Kooning theft, witnesses saw a man and woman enter the museum. The woman distracted a security guard while the man headed upstairs, cut the de Kooning from of its frame, and stuck it inside his winter jacket.

The de Kooning was recovered more than 30 years later, in 2017, when three antique dealers in Silver City, New Mexico David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson purchased part of the Alters estate. They brought the de Kooning painting back to their store, unaware it was real and valuable.

Van Auker planned to take the painting home and put it in his guest house. But customers coming into the store to browse quickly recognized it as a work by a famous artist. He searched online, found a photo and article about the stolen painting in The Arizona Republic

and called the Tucson museum.

Schachter could find no evidence the Taos paintings were ever recovered by New Mexico the museum. Hes a writer, not an investigator. So he reported his findings to the Harwood Museum.

Now I need to let the Harwood Museum take it further, he said.

The museums executive director, Juniper Leherissey, told ABC15 that the museum is in the early stages of trying to determine whether the paintings from the Alters estate are the same ones stolen from the museum.

We are beginning the journey, she said.

Scottsdale Art Auction told ABC15 in a statement that the auction house has been in business since 2005, selling more than 7,000 original works of art.

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; though at this point we have not heard from them.

ABC15 also has reached out to the FBI for comment.

As for Jerry and Rita Alter, he was a schoolteacher, and she a school speech pathologist. The New York City transplants moved to rural New Mexico in the late 1970s. Jerry retired early while Rita continued to work in the local schools. They took long trips to exotic countries during school vacations. Neighbors questioned how they afforded their travels. They say the couple mostly kept to themselves.

Jerry died in 2012, and Rita five years later.

FBI documents indicate that Rita left behind substantial assets. In an FBI report, the Alters estate executor told the FBI that there were several bonds owned by Rita valued at more than $1 million, a sizeable sum for a pair of retired school employees.

Their two adult children were unable to shed light on how the paintings ended up in the home. The FBI has since closed that investigation and wont say definitively if the couple took the de Kooning.

Schachter believes its more than coincidence.

They were taken in a very similar way, he said. And all three paintings wind up in the Alters home. So its just impossible not to draw connections between these cases.

Reporter Anne Ryman was the first journalist to break the story that Woman-Ochre had been recovered. She has written extensively about the de Kooning painting. Have a question about the painting? You can reach her at 


 or (602) 685-6345. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at