Was a Retired NYC School Teacher Behind Heist of Willem de Kooning Painting?

Though 'Woman-Ochre' was returned to museum, the mystery hasn't been solved.

September 10, 2017 9:02 am

A stolen Willem de Kooning masterpiece has been returned to the museum where it belongs 32 years after the brazen heist — but the mystery behind the crime still lingers.

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, two suspects described as an older woman and a younger man wearing heavy winter coats cut the work of art from of its frame and fled the museum. The pilfered painting had been missing until it turned up on a bedroom wall during an estate sale earlier this year.

Investigators are now eyeing a possible suspect — a retired New York City schoolteacher who may have dressed in women’s clothing and used his son as an accomplice to carry out the theft, The New York Times is reporting.

The painting, after all, was discovered in the bedroom of the New Mexico home of Jerome Alter, who died at 81 in 2012, during an estate sale after the death of his wife, Rita, earlier this summer.

There is other circumstantial evidence: Alter bears a resemblance to a police sketch of the female suspect in the heist; his son to the younger suspect. And the former teacher included two stories about thefts from museums in a book he wrote, “The Cup and the Lip.”

An antiques dealer, David Van Auker, bought the contents of the house for roughly $2,000, without recognizing the masterpiece. It wasn’t until a neighbor told him the work looked like a de Kooning that he started searching on Google to discover its origins. After stumbling on an article theft, Van Auker called the University of Arizona and the pilfered painting was soon returned to its rightful owners.

“We returned something that was stolen, and that’s something everyone should do,” David Van Auker told The Arizona Republic at the time. “It absolutely had to come back.”

The de Kooning painting in valued in excess of $100 million.

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