Forget hidden rooms inside haunted castles; nothing beats the suburban bedroom when it comes to enticingly sinister chambers. Massive pill collections, too many creepy dolls, an elaborate hidden camera setup … you truly never know what hides behind the picket fences of your most milquetoast neighbors. And in the case of one darling New Mexico couple, what was behind their bedroom was the prize of an epic art heist.
In 1985, the day after Thanksgiving, one of the most expensive paintings in the world was stolen. In under 15 minutes, a mysterious couple walked into the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson and walked out with impressionist painter Willem de Kooning's Woman-Ochre, valued today at over $160 million. The woman stayed behind to distract the guard while the man skipped upstairs, cut the painting out of its frame, and mosied back down. By the time the guard figured out he now owed the museum $160 million, the couple had already driven off, without anyone knowing their faces, license plate, or names.
But it could be that their names were Jerry and Rita Alter, a sweet and friendly old couple who had lived out their twilight years in a quaint little house in Cliff (Population: 293), New Mexico. After the couple had passed, it was in an obscured corner of that house's master bedroom that antiques dealer David Van Auker bought this near priceless painting for a pittance. When several of his patrons pointed out its part in the greatest art heist in the history of black turtleneck sweaters, Van Auker did the responsible thing: he called the museum, loaded his guns, and didn't sleep until curators collected the $160 million piece of canvas.
To this day, the Alters' next of kin claim they couldn't have been enormously successful con artists, but the evidence against the mild-mannered couple mounted quite a counter-argument. Not only is there photographic evidence of them being in Tucson on the night of Thanksgiving, but investigators started to wonder how these two New York public school employees managed to travel to 140 countries in their lifetime, own a classic sports car, and have over a million dollars in their bank account at the time of Rita's passing.
However, the most damning piece of evidence has to be the near-self-confession by Jerry. The year before his death, he published a short story titled "The Jaguar's Eye" where two people bamboozle a guard and steal a priceless artifact (a giant emerald) for themselves, the story ending with the line "And two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!" -- the most subtle self-confession since O.J. Simpson's If I Did It.
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Top Image: Willem de Kooning