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An Artful Mystery: A Lost Painting Returned After Three Decades

Posted by Steve Karimi | Sep 08, 2017 | 0 Comments

Crimes can go unsolved for many years and people come up with all kinds of theories about who was really behind it. Sometimes the culprit is revealed, sometimes not. When the crime is solved, the person who committed it may be someone that was on the police's radar all along, but sometimes it's someone who is completely unexpected. The Seattle Times recently ran an article about a 32-year old art heist and the painting that was finally recovered from the home of an elderly couple in New Mexico.

The heist itself occurred at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985. In the morning the day after Thanksgiving two people entered the museum. While one of the pair, a younger man, chatted with a security guard, investigators believe the other individual, who they think was a man dressed as an older woman, cut the painting out of its frame and tucked it into his coat. The two people then hightailed it out of the museum and it was their quick exit that drew the attention of museum employees. The painting that was taken was “Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning. At the time it was stolen it was worth $400,000, now it is valued at more than $100 million.

For 32 years no one knew who had taken the painting or where it was kept until it reappeared in the shop of antique and furniture dealer David Van Auker. He hadn't recognized the painting but according to the Seattle Times, several of the patrons at his store thought it might be a de Kooning. Auker did a search online and “turned up photographs of the stolen artwork and an Arizona Republic story from 2015 about the 30th anniversary of the theft.” Auker called the museum, which later flew the piece to Tucson and authenticated it as the lost painting.

Auker had acquired the painting along with other items from the estate of Rita Alter. She and her husband, Jerome, had lived in a small town in New Mexico since the late 1970's. The de Kooning had been hanging in their bedroom. It was “situated so it was completely obscured when the door was open, but visible from the bed when the door closed.” Investigators are now looking into whether or not Jerome was one of the people who took the painting all those years ago. The Seattle Times discussed two theories about the identities of the thieves: that the older woman could have been Jerome in disguise and the younger man, his son, or alternatively, that the pair could have been Rita and Jerome.

If it was Alter, it seems that he took the painting “simply so he could enjoy it.” Whether or not any of the Alters were actually involved in the theft is yet to be determined. According to the Seattle Times, this is just one of the theories that investigators are looking into. Thus, the full story has yet to be revealed and the case, yet to be solved.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.


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Named a "rising star" in criminal defense by Washington Law and Politics magazine, Mr. Karimi is a former prosecutor for King County who uses his insight into prosecution strategies to protect his clients' rights in criminal court.