It's always the quiet ones
August 4, 2018 6:50 AM   Subscribe

After Jerry and Rita Alter passed away, a painting that hung in their bedroom was discovered to be a stolen De Kooning, worth over $100 million. They were a quiet couple that kept to themselves, and friends and family have a hard time believing they could be the thieves. But others aren't so sure.
posted by helloknitty (63 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 


*And now I'm off to watch the Thomas Crown Affair because I love a good heist film.
posted by Fizz at 7:10 AM on August 4 [12 favorites]


I don't know what I like more about that story: that they apparently stole a painting worth over $100 million and hung it on their bedroom wall for the rest of their lives, or the possibility that they actually were criminal masterminds, and that's how they ended up dying with millions of dollars in their bank accounts despite being unassuming public school employees. Anyway, if you're going to be a criminal mastermind, that's probably the way to do it: live a quiet life, but take fabulous vacations and decorate your house with great works of art.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:13 AM on August 4 [74 favorites]


The part about them possibly being criminal masterminds frustrates me. The whole article is about the one painting, worth exactly $0 to them since it stayed in their house and they couldn't sell it. But then at the very end of the article they drop the knowledge these folks had a lot of money. OK, that implies they were stealing and selling other art. Tell me more! Maybe that's all we know so far.
posted by Nelson at 7:25 AM on August 4 [15 favorites]


But then at the very end of the article they drop the knowledge these folks had a lot of money.

And, even then, that's not super clear. We're meant to infer that public employees (gasp!) couldn't possibly accumulate wealth, when I expect there are quite a few people of their age with similar backgrounds sitting on quite a bit of cash as the result of some combination of luck and frugality.
posted by hoyland at 7:38 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


Or maybe they were simply shrewd about art and made a few quiet deals?
posted by wenestvedt at 7:45 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Nelson, exactly!! The article just dangles this possibility out there at the end and then doesn't go into it any further! Now I want to see a movie version of this.

Great post though; I really enjoyed the article!
posted by aka burlap at 7:58 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Oh maaaan, I think they totally stole that De Kooning AND they totally stole tons of other art, too. I wonder if stealing the De Kooning was their first stolen piece, and they kept it on their wall like a small business owner keeps the first dollar they made, or if the De Kooning was the one piece they kept because they liked it.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:04 AM on August 4 [22 favorites]


And, even then, that's not super clear. We're meant to infer that public employees (gasp!) couldn't possibly accumulate wealth, when I expect there are quite a few people of their age with similar backgrounds sitting on quite a bit of cash as the result of some combination of luck and frugality.

Yeah that struck me as weird. I had neighbours growing up who were teachers and they took a year off every 7 years to travel the world because you could do that in our school district. They took 80% pay to subsidize their paid sabbaticals and I wouldn't be surprised if they visited 140 countries. Other than that they were just bog-standard middle class folk.
posted by srboisvert at 8:10 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


I don't know what I like more about that story: that they apparently stole a painting worth over $100 million and hung it on their bedroom wall for the rest of their lives, or the possibility that they actually were criminal masterminds, and that's how they ended up dying with millions of dollars in their bank accounts despite being unassuming public school employees.

There are a bunch of details about them that, if one wishes, can spin be spun into hints of secrets. They lived in a modest rural ranch-style house, but it was custom built on 20 acres that they owned, with landscaping quite a bit nicer than their neighbors. Frugal saving with an eye towards spending on just the things that brought them joy, or secret criminal masterminds? Who knows!
posted by RichardP at 8:10 AM on August 4 [9 favorites]


I expect there are quite a few people of their age with similar backgrounds sitting on quite a bit of cash as the result of some combination of luck and frugality.

A fellow in my neck of the woods who had worked his whole life as a janitor and gas station attendant and died at the age of 92, left an estate of $8 million, most of which he bequeathed to the local hospital and library. He was not a criminal mastermind. He just read the Wall Street Journal, lived frugally, and invested wisely.

So the fact the Alters had a million bucks in the bank doesn't of itself make them criminal masterminds. I'm guessing though, that the FBI is scrutinizing their accounts to see whether they saved regularly and invested wisely, or whether their savings derive from unexplained large cash inflows over the years.
posted by beagle at 8:17 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


Aw hell yeah. I can't wait to see this movie.

Also, the most intriguing detail of the whole thing: they shared a day planner?? With "meticulous notes about what they ate, where they went, and the medications they had," the both of them, as a couple?!!
posted by witchen at 8:36 AM on August 4 [20 favorites]


The AZCentral article RichardP linked has a picture of the bedroom. Lots more art. I wonder who else got bargains at that estate sale?
posted by theora55 at 8:39 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


The community's local newspaper, the Silver City Sun-News, had an article a year ago with some details about the estate sale: Local real estate broker had priceless stolen painting in her hands.
posted by RichardP at 8:49 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Another piece: maybe they can't find the daughter because they trained her in the family side business, and now she's a full time international art thief
posted by momus_window at 8:56 AM on August 4 [21 favorites]


Willem de Kooning was a proper dbag, and paintings shouldn't be sold for $100 million. I wouldn't love it if my own (unsold) work was stolen, and i'm sympathetic to collecting institutions, and it seems like there may be/have been an undercurrent of mental illness in the Alter family, but art heists, like jewel thefts, are awesome on principle, and I hope this couple did make a habit of them.
posted by wreckingball at 9:11 AM on August 4 [16 favorites]


That painting and all it represents is hideous. I don’t know how they slept with that thing hanging in their bedroom.
posted by shalom at 9:14 AM on August 4 [10 favorites]


What if each story, not just the one mentioned in this piece, in Jerry Alter's book, The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales, is some type of veiled reference to a heist or scheme that him and his wife partook in?
posted by coolxcool=rad at 9:18 AM on August 4 [25 favorites]


They hung it by the door, so that only someone who was in the bedroom with door closed behind them would see it.

They must have had a little thrill when guests were over.

The embedded video looks good, it’s 20 minutes not some little trailer thing.
posted by Rumple at 9:20 AM on August 4


What if each story, not just the one mentioned in this piece, in Jerry Alter's book, The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales, is some type of veiled reference to a heist or scheme that him and his wife partook in?

I love that thought and I love that framing device. Oh god, I am so amped for this story to turn into a book/film.
posted by witchen at 9:21 AM on August 4


Pfft, my kid could steal that.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:24 AM on August 4 [72 favorites]


Shades of Jonathan Hemlock.
posted by valkane at 9:29 AM on August 4


I have no idea what the painting is supposed to represent but it’s horrifying. I’d only hang it in my basement where I kept my eldritch horrors and canning supplies


That said , heists are usually fascinating and this is!
posted by sio42 at 9:34 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Also, the most intriguing detail of the whole thing: they shared a day planner?? With "meticulous notes about what they ate, where they went, and the medications they had," the both of them, as a couple?!!

I like this bc it's how you maintain a constant flow of flawless alibis.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:50 AM on August 4 [62 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic, poffin boffin. OF COURSE!!!!!!!!! God, these people were good.
posted by witchen at 9:54 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


by which you mean bad, right?
posted by philip-random at 9:58 AM on August 4


No. Good. Seems like a relatively victimless crime.
posted by witchen at 10:02 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I mean, until they find any bodies or until I learn that anyone has suffered because of their heist(s), I will say it's victimless.
posted by witchen at 10:11 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Apparently two different people came into the shop and said "that's a real Kooning" to the staff instead of buying it quietly for resale. A honest strain of folk in Silver City, apparently!
posted by tavella at 10:18 AM on August 4 [20 favorites]


Something about the estate dealer's story seems off, with the random customers being so honest and knowledgeable about this specific artist.
posted by dilaudid at 10:25 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]


He was not a criminal mastermind. He just read the Wall Street Journal, lived frugally, and invested wisely.

This is exactly what a criminal mastermind would want you to think.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:26 AM on August 4 [10 favorites]


I am also not a criminal mastermind.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:32 AM on August 4 [11 favorites]


Another piece: maybe they can't find the daughter because they trained her in the family side business, and now she's a full time international art thief

(AHEM)
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:36 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


I would believe they just invested wisely...if it weren't for all that travel. He retired at 47, she worked as a speech pathologist and they still could afford that level of international travel? I think there was more going on than wise investments.
posted by rednikki at 10:40 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Even if you’re not a criminal mastermind, it would be a mistake to have anywhere near that amount of money in your own name at that age. A prolonged illness or a need for assisted living/nursing home would zap right through that money with frightening speed.

If they have no problem letting that money fall into the clutches of the elder care industrial complex, then they must have a ton more parked somewhere else. Say, that odd painting that always hung in the bedroom...
posted by dr_dank at 10:55 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


You never rarely hear about the smart criminals who don't get caught.

I want to believe the world is full of public school teachers who spend their summers engaged in international high-end art heists because they like looking at the paintings.

On the other hand, traveling a bunch and saving one million dollars on a lifetime, dual-income professional salary doesn't seem crazy. (I'm not sure what "worked in public schools" means - it sounds like some effort to avoid saying they're both teachers.) This isn't quite the, "five hundred millions dollars in a Swiss bank account" punchline that the story really wants.
posted by eotvos at 10:56 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I like this bc it's how you maintain a constant flow of flawless alibis.

Hmmm. I think we should keep an eye on poffin boffin.
posted by notreally at 11:03 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]


I like this bc it's how you maintain a constant flow of flawless alibis.

Hmmm. I think we should keep an eye on poffin boffin.


Or perhaps not. Perhaps poffin boffin is quietly presenting a solution to mefi’s funding issues, and has been burying clues in posts so the cabal (there is no cabal) will be informed, but also has plausible deniabilty...

Hey, that’s a really shiny black Suburban pulling up out front. Brb, someone’s knocking at the front door...
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 11:08 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Something about the estate dealer's story seems off, with the random customers being so honest and knowledgeable about this specific artist.

Not really. The painting is clearly signed "de Kooning", and he's quite a famous painter.
posted by oulipian at 11:24 AM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The husband was a teacher until he retired at the age of 47. The wife continued to work as a speech pathologist. Also, reading the articles is a thing you could do.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:29 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Article is behind a paywall so it's not easily readable.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 11:38 AM on August 4


If they invested early and shrewdly in the post-war boom, retiring at 47 wouldn't be crazy. And the wife continued to work in the local school system for some period after they moved. My grandmother took trips all over the world post WWII and still left something like a half million dollars to her five children. She was a doctor, but a GP who charged quite modest fees, and didn't inherit money, she was just shrewd and frugal.

I am curious about the daughter, though. The remaining family knows where the son is, but no mention of them knowing where the daughter is and a nephew was appointed executor. When a million+ dollars is in the offing, people don't usually stay away.
posted by tavella at 11:48 AM on August 4


Article is behind a paywall so it's not easily readable.

I don't want to brag, but let's just say that I didn't pay to read the article.

Which brings up a point...there is almost nothing of any real value like this painting I would be able to sell without being killed, stiffed, caught in a sting operation, or all three. Given my finances, finding a stolen painting would involve a lot of temptation to try and find it a new home, if you see what I'm saying.

Poffin, don't hang up if you see me on your caller ID, is what I'm saying. 50% commission plus expenses? Fine, fine.
posted by maxwelton at 11:49 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]


WaterAndPixels, open it incognito and it will work.
posted by tavella at 11:50 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Googled it and followed the google link. So glad the industry I worked in hasn't been eaten by google yet...
posted by WaterAndPixels at 12:07 PM on August 4


The story of the Alters reminds me of the original 1977 version of the movie Fun With Dick and Jane with Jane Fonda and George Segal. It's like some 1970s middle class couple one day decided, "Hey honey, why don't we do some criming and heisting? Wouldn't that be fun?"
posted by jonp72 at 12:29 PM on August 4




I am also not a criminal mastermind.

I am a recreational mastermind.

Red, Blue, White, Green.
posted by srboisvert at 12:29 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


So, I read this yesterday and watched the video. They were definitely up to something. The U of Arizona policy chief is really cagey about answering questions and the FBI won't say anything more until the investigation is complete.

I could buy the idea that they were really frugal but their house is in Silver City and was custom built with a pool. A pool in high desert New Mexico! He retired at 48 after working as a musician and then a teacher (they met in the Catskills). She didn't start working until they moved to NM and was probably on the beginning scales of public school teacher pay. They traveled a lot and from the looks of the slides, they were not slumming or hosteling it.

The final thing is the implication that the couple who stole the painting, an older women with glasses and a young man, were really Mr. Alter dressed in women's clothes and his then 23-year-old son. So, there's a lot more to this story and I can't wait to find out.
posted by nikitabot at 12:40 PM on August 4 [12 favorites]


Cool story, but I don't think an actual criminal mastermind would keep that much money in a U.S. bank.
posted by freakazoid at 12:41 PM on August 4


I mean, they were never caught and they died peacefully in their 80s, so masterminds or not, I'd say they did alright for themselves.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:56 PM on August 4 [17 favorites]


I can't really approve of stealing from museums, no matter how odious I might find the artist's views. So I'm a bit torn, for the world is a better, more colorful place for having this bonkers story in it.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 1:23 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]



Apparently two different people came into the shop and said "that's a real Kooning" to the staff instead of buying it quietly for resale. A honest strain of folk in Silver City, apparently!


I can’t imagine buying and trying to resell a famously stolen painting would do much for your social life. Probably why the Alters kept it....wait a minute, the ALTERS? That’s a little on the nose, don’tcha think?
posted by Autumnheart at 1:49 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The writers’ attention has been elsewhere.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:07 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


Even if you’re not a criminal mastermind, it would be a mistake to have anywhere near that amount of money in your own name at that age.

dr_dank: Just a side question, but what would one do with the money, then?
posted by Chitownfats at 6:18 PM on August 4


Stealing from a museum seems like it could be valid art in certain circumstances.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:14 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


I've been in a few museums with really minimal security and I assume a properly criminally-minded person could find a way to steal stuff here and there. But even if I successfully stole expensive artwork, all I could do is hang it on my walls; I wouldn't know how to even begin accessing the networks where those items are bought and sold.

It's like in those movies where someone steals a bag of diamonds. Ok, that's great, you are holding millions of dollars in your hand -- now you need to find a diamond dealer who is crooked enough do the transaction in cash with no paperwork, but not so crooked as to have your body dumped in a canal rather than pay you.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:15 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]


Chitownfatsdr_dank: Just a side question, but what would one do with the money, then?

My friends parents who have paid-off homes and cash assets to speak of have already put those assets into their kids’ names. This has to be done years in advance as there is a lookback period for Medicare means eligibility which will not look kindly at a cash transfer or a deed signover made recently.

Of course, all of this assumes that a)one has these kinds of assets and b)kids/family members/friends that are trustworthy enough not to take the money and run.
posted by dr_dank at 7:51 AM on August 5


"Medicare means eligibility..."

No. There is no such thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:40 AM on August 5


I was wondering about that. Did you mean Medicaid? That is means-tested.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 1:10 PM on August 5


MetaFilter: the cabal (there is no cabal) will be informed
posted by reductiondesign at 8:13 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of this scene from The Accountant.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:52 AM on August 6


Article is behind a paywall so it's not easily readable.

I don't want to brag, but let's just say that I didn't pay to read the article.


maxwelton is an elegant, skillful international art thief article thief?
posted by cattypist at 4:49 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]


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