Moment of Truth
A most unlikely chain of events had led Rose here, sitting across the table from an expert appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. However awful the truth was, she promised herself that she would keep her composure. But when she learns more about the painting her grandma had given her, she can’t help herself.
As she stared at the appraiser, gobsmacked, the whole world seemed to stand still. She swung wildly from one emotion to the next, and they all showed on her face. From disbelief to tears, they all played out as the appraiser quietly waited for her to recover before giving her more information to process about her beloved heirloom.
This was a day she would never forget.
Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center was hosting the popular ‘Antiques Roadshow’, and the well-known and televised series had drawn a crowd of over 5000 hopefuls with their knick-knacks and bric-a-brac in tow. Everyone was eager to find out if their valuables were worth their weight in gold or if they had just been hoarding junk.
She waited patiently among the others to see the master appraiser.
This particular painting had been in her family for generations, which made it priceless to her. But she was finally about to find out whether the artwork had any monetary value, or if it was just another pretty painting that would hang in her house before being passed on to the next son or daughter.
But she wasn’t sure if she wanted to know more than that.
Above Grandma’s Bed
The artwork had hung above her grandma’s bed for as long as she could remember. She had loved it for its scenic and calming quality and had always wanted to keep it safe and close to her. But nobody ever really knew if it was an original painting or a print, or even what it was worth.
Rose had only begun to suspect that it might be an original painting when something bizarre happened.
Handed Down for Generations
The beautiful painting had been handed down to Rose after her beloved granny had passed, and she felt truly honored to receive the piece that her dear grandmother had loved so much. Looking at it made her feel like her late grandma was close when in reality they were now worlds apart.
One day she was admiring the frame when she noticed something hidden inside.
A small blemish seemed to be spoiling the beautiful artwork, so Rose took it outside into the light to get a closer look at the stain and that’s when she saw it. There was a small black insect that had somehow become wedged directly between the canvas and the glass plate in the frame.
She opened the back of the frame up carefully and removed the glass to expose the artwork to the sunlight and air.
The Most Annoying Insect
Rose inspected the insect closely and realized it was a mosquito. Carefully gripping the insect between her thumb and forefinger, she lightly grazed the painted canvas with her knuckle, and her heart started to pound in her chest. She put the mosquito into the flowers and hastily placed the glass back over the painting.
Later, she explained, “I took it out to the front yard and I opened it up to get the mosquito out so I could take it with me to college, and then it kind of scared me a little. I closed it back up immediately because it looked like it might be real.” But she wouldn’t know the truth until much later.
Now, if you ask anyone what they think is the most annoying insect on the planet, you’ll find that the most common answer is probably the mosquito. They really are good-for-nothing bugs, at best they keep us awake at night with a high-pitched drone, and at worst they have been known to spread infections.
But this particular mosquito was just what Rose needed to find out the truth of the painting. But what was the truth?
Rose had waited around for the greater part of the day, and now it was finally time for her to see the appraiser. She was asked to take a seat after carefully balancing her painting upright on the evaluation table. Rose held her breath as she sat down beside it, ever so carefully.
The butterflies in her stomach intensified as Meredith Hilferty, the master appraiser, sat down opposite her. It was now, or never.
A Little About the Piece
Meredith begins the interview by asking Rose if she knows anything about the artwork, and unlike many other visitors on the show, she seems to know about the artist.
She begins to tell Meredith what she thinks she knows: “I know he was born in France and then he moved to northern Pennsylvania,” She said.
Artist of the Frontier
Henry Francois Farny was a famous artist whose relationship with Native American tribes was the stuff of legend. It is said that he learned the lore of the forest when he was a child from the Seneca tribe when they hunted in the area where he lived, near their reservation in New York state.
But how had Rose’s grandma come to have the painting if it was authentic?
“So he could have been in the area at the time when he was painting it when it was given to my grandmother. And then he moved out to Ohio. But he had associations with the Sioux tribe and they actually adopted him in and they gave him a cipher, ‘LongBoots’.”
Rose continued, “And that’s what that little circle under his signature is.”
The Last Question
Meredith nodded her head and said that Rose was indeed correct about some of the artist’s history, and then she agreed that it may be possible that the painting was authentic, based on Rose’s grandmother’s whereabouts at the time. But she still had one more question to ask Rose, and the answer left the audience reeling.
“Have you had it appraised before? Do you know if she had it appraised?” she asked gently. Rose thought carefully before replying, but what she said was scandalous.
“It was appraised as part of a general house appraisal twice. In 1998 it was appraised as a print at $200 and in 2004 at $250,” Rose explained.
The disbelief in Meredith’s eyes is briefly evident before she smiles and her tone changes as she tries to conceal what she already knows.
Meredith looks at the painting and back at Rose, holding back her smile. Then, without changing her tone or missing a beat she levels her professional appraisal of the beautiful family heirloom. It’s her delivery that is what makes the value of the artwork that much more shocking.
Rose’s face starts to flush bright red in utter disbelief, and then a tear slowly rolls down her cheek.
Meredith turns to Rose and calmly says, “So, if we were going to put this in an auction today, I would suggest an estimate of $200,000 – $300,000.” Rose tries to comprehend what she’s just been told, but she’s too stunned to speak.
She finally regains her composure, and her reaction is priceless.
Meredith remains silent as the camera zooms in on Rose’s reaction. Every emotion plays out on her face, from disbelief to elation. Then, she lets out a little giggle, and then tears start to form in her eyes.
Through her sobs, she asks an innocent question that reveals just what her grandma’s painting means to her.
Rose speaks again and her throat is choked up with emotion, ‘So I can’t hang it then?” she squeaks as the value of her grandma’s painting finally hits home and she realizes she probably shouldn’t hang it above her bed as a decoration.
Meredith is startled by the young woman’s display of emotion at first, but then she starts to fill her in on more fascinating details about the artwork.
The Sioux Tribe
The mesmerizing artwork depicts a group of Sioux as they round the bend of a rocky mountain trail on horseback. It was created during the artist’s most prolific time.
Meredith explains, “1890 is when we start to see some of his very best paintings. He represented the Native Americans in a very peaceful, tranquil way.”
From a Different Perspective
“You can see that in this painting, he didn’t really ever bring conflict into his work as some of the other artists of that time did,” she continued. Rose was listening intently.
“He really just wanted to show the Native Americans in their natural environment – without too many other things happening besides the landscape around them.”
Worth a Fortune
“Her dad, I’m guessing, would’ve given it to her after she spent the summer at a dude ranch when she was 19, in …like …the ’40s,” Rose confirmed, still crying.
And people all over the world can’t get enough of the young woman’s tearful reaction when she finds out that her grandma’s cherished and sentimental painting is worth a fortune.
“What a horrible dilemma. Something so cherished, so beautiful, and important to the memory of your family. A historical relic from an American master. But on the other hand, a MASSIVE pile of cash that could change your world. A new home, or college or relief from grinding debt,” one woman commented.
“Such a heavy choice and no wrong answer, but really no right one either.”
Over four million netizens watched Rose discover the true worth of her grandma’s painting and treasured heirloom on Youtube, and they mostly have nice things to say, commenting on her depth of character and honesty.
“It was interesting that her first reaction was an expression of loss despite the value she learned the painting has. She said, “So, I can’t put it up?” and shed tears.”
The insightful commenter continued, “Meaning, the painting reminds her of her grandmother and because of the high value of the object she can’t risk it being stolen. She must place it where it will be safe from thieves but away from her eyes. She can’t see it every day and think of her dear grandma. Very sweet reaction.”
But not all the comments on the video were so positive.
Some viewers expressed disappointment and outright anger that the first two evaluations of the heirloom had been so far off the mark. “What kind of appraiser just assumes it’s a print?” someone wrote, annoyed. Others wondered if it was a scam, or an honest mistake. Some said that perhaps it had been evaluated by a Jack-of-all-trades appraiser while he conducted a broad house evaluation, but we will never know the truth.
Rose, on the other hand, was only worried about one thing when she learned the true value of the artwork.
“Should I have left the mosquito in the back?” Rose asked with a stammer, anxious that she had done the wrong thing by exposing the artwork to the elements.
Meredith consoles her gently with her reply, “It’s actually not a bad idea that you took the bug out,” she said. And then she explained why.
“Ultimately, we would like for a conservator to do that but the bug could have continued to cause a stain, but no. It’s good that the bug wasn’t there anymore,” she explained.
The relief that washes over Rose is apparent on her face when she understands that she did the right thing when she trusted her instincts.
The Right Choice
So, in the end, it was a good idea to remove the bug from the painting. As Meredith explains, it could have resulted in a stain that a conservator could probably have worked on, but the fact remains that the removal of the mosquito had a two-fold effect.
For one, it saved the painting from any more possible damage, but there was also another important role that the hapless mosquito played.
This tiny and insignificant mosquito played a much larger role in Rose’s story — it pointed her in the direction and gave her a glimmer of hope that there was more than met the eye about the piece. Without the mosquito, she probably would never have been prompted to inspect the painting, or even take it to Meredith to be evaluated.
But now, as some commenters were quick to point out, Rose has a very big decision to make.
A Daunting Decision
What would you do if you were in Rose’s position? Would you choose to keep the sentimental heirloom that was left to you by your beloved grandma, or would you give it up for financial stability? Maybe you’d square your college debt, or pay off a house. Or would you keep it and hang it up behind your bed in your college dorm, like Rose intended to do?
Rose never knew that she was sitting on a fortune, and that’s what makes her reaction priceless. But some people do know what the paintings they have are worth, and will do anything to hide them from the world…
When the call came, it shattered his world. He felt like a deer in the headlights as the FBI carefully explained what his favorite aunt and uncle had done. But he refused to believe it. The family members that he knew and loved couldn’t possibly have committed one of the biggest crimes of the 1980s.
But then a seed of doubt started to sprout in his mind. Do we really know the people around us? Do we really know our friends, neighbors, and relatives?
A Secret Life
To Houston resident Ron Roseman, Rita and Jerome Alter were model citizens. They were well-educated and well-loved in their community by friends and neighbors alike. They were both school teachers who had saved enough money to travel all seven continents. Ron was particularly mesmerized by his uncle’s stories.
But there was another story about Jerome and Rita’s secret life that he would only learn much, much later.
The Alters seemed like normal, middle-class citizens who had taken up residence in Cliff, New Mexico in the 1970s. Jerry loved traveling, art, and adventure, while Rita seemed to be a shining example of kindness to all who met her.
She worked as a speech pathologist and was more than supportive when Jerry decided to retire from his job as a music teacher at the young age of forty-eight to pursue the finer things in life.
The Truth Comes Out
Although their neighbors knew the Alters, they said later that they tended to keep to themselves. What nobody ever suspected was that the couple was hiding a momentous secret. When Jerry passed away of natural causes in 2011, Rita followed just 5 years later. They left behind two children, Barbara and Joseph, who were now adults.
If Ron Roseman hadn’t been left as the executor of their estate purely because he lived the closest to Cliff, New Mexico, The Alters’ crime may never have seen the light of day.
Selling It All Off
Ron decided to put the Alters’ Cliff home up for sale, and he invited a hoard of dealers to come in to assess their possessions. Most of the items were snapped up in a frenzy and carted off in just a few days.
African artifacts, pieces of furniture and paintings were sold to the highest bidder, and for just $2000, David Van Auker from Silver City claimed all the spoils.
Scene Of The Crime
$2000 wasn’t nearly as much as Ron had hoped for, but he was glad to wind down his late aunt and uncle’s estate. Little did he know, there was something priceless among the items that the antique dealer hauled into his car that day.
Ron never suspected that this particular item had been under investigation for the last 33 years, and the case was about to be blown wide open.
David Van Auker was filled with glee at the bargain he had found when he began to sort and price the assets he had purchased for a pittance. But as he inspected the items one by one, his eyes kept moving back to one particular item.
He had a feeling that he just couldn’t explain when he looked at it, but he would only know what it was after he began to dig deeper into the mystery.
avid put the day’s work in the back of his mind as he returned to his home in Pinos Altos that evening. The next day, however, one of his newly-acquired pieces was quickly becoming the talk of the town.
An artist with sharp eye happened to walk into his antique dealership, Manzanita Ridge Antiques and said the five words that prompted David to call the FBI, who then called Ron Roseman.
“It’s my favorite aunt and uncle,” Ron recalled. “You know I couldn’t imagine…you know scenarios running through my head…I felt like a deer in the headlights.”At first, Ron refuses to believe what the FBI is accusing Jerry and Rita of.
Then, the reality of it all slowly sinks in. Could his own beloved aunt and uncle have pulled off one of the most brazen heists in American history?
It is the morning of November 29, 1985. A lone security guard is opening up the door of the largest and most popular museum in Tucson, Arizona, to let a staff member pass. It is early, and the museum isn’t officially open for the day yet.
But that doesn’t deter the then unknown couple as they approach to start a conversation.
The woman, who looks to be in her 60s, chats idly to the security guard about anything she can think of. They talk about art and the weather while a man slips into the building unnoticed, where he heads straight to the third floor.
A few minutes pass and the man suddenly reappears by the woman’s side, and they make a hasty retreat into a rust-red two-door sports car.
The security guard is suspicious that the couple didn’t stay to go inside the museum, so he goes to investigate with a sinking feeling in his stomach. As it was 1985, there were no security cameras in the museum to catch the man in the act.
The security guard quickly realizes what has happened as he stares at the empty frame on the third floor.
The priceless painting ‘Woman-Ochre’ by renowned Dutch artist Willem De Kooning is missing, all that remains is a rectangular piece of canvas where the painting has been cut out of its frame with a blade.
The police found no fingerprints, and the only clue was the guard’s description of the mysterious couple and their getaway car, but they had no license plate number.
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning was a prominent painter of abstracts in the mid-century expressionist movement, and his paintings are exceptionally valuable. One painting has been sold for a staggering $137.5 million.
The famous art heist of ‘Woman-Ochre’ had remained unsolved for three decades until an unassuming dealer realized just what it was that he had sitting in his Silver City antique store.
David Van Auker had thought nothing of the abstract painting that he had acquired at the Alters’ estate until an artist had walked into his store and seen it, exclaiming “That’s a Willem De Kooning!” But the chances of him stumbling upon such a momentous piece of history only started to dawn on him once he had conducted some research.
He read the article about the painting that was stolen from the Arizona Museum of Art and his eyes grew wide in their sockets.
Keeping It Safe
David’s astonishment quickly became fear as he realized just what he had in his possession. He had to hide it away from prying eyes. Ironically, the only door that locked in the store was the bathroom, so he moved the 40-by-30 inch painting there and locked it inside.
“We were afraid someone would bash it or flick paint off it so that’s when we decided we would pick it up and stick it somewhere safe,” Van Auker explained later. Then, he called the Tucson museum.
After All These Years
“I had daydreams of getting that phone call, of someone calling up or someone mysteriously sending a package and the painting being inside of it,” said Olivia Miller, curator for UAMA.
“I don’t think I honestly thought it would actually happen.” But Olivia was naturally skeptical about David’s find – at first. Then David related a crucial detail that changed everything.
“The thing he said that really stood out, that made me – I was taking it seriously but really made me stop – was he said there are lines across it as if it’s cracked like it’s been rolled up,” Olivia Miller recounted.
“Ok, that’s just a detail that – nobody could just say that.” That’s when Chief Brian Seastone got a call.
Chief Brian Seastone had investigated the theft of the De Kooning painting for over 30 years, and he always had a feeling in his heart that he would one day crack the case.
“I just had this feeling,” Seastone added. “So, 32 years later I got to see the tears of joy and happiness as it really did come home.”
Soon afterward, the painting was examined carefully and the signature was found to be authentic. The painting was the real deal. And the most surprising detail?
The Alters had kept it hung behind their bedroom door, away from prying eyes for over three decades. And new evidence points to the seemingly ordinary couple as the ones who had stolen the painting.
On Private Display
“My personal thought, and it may be totally wrong, but when I first saw where the painting was hanging in the house, it was for their private display,” Buck Burns, co-owner of an antique shop, said. “Not for anybody else. It was hung behind that door and when that door was open nobody could see it.”
But the most incriminating evidence had been under everyone’s noses all along.
Jerome “Jerry” Alter had written a book of short stories in 2011 entitled ‘The Cup and the Lip’. One of the stories inside is a fictitious account of a woman and her daughter who steal a 120-carat jewel from a museum by distracting the guard, stealing the jewel, and fleeing in a getaway vehicle.
When they arrive home, they hang the jewel in a secret panel in their home – where it will stay for their exclusive viewing pleasure.
More Evidence Surfaces
But Ron Roseman cannot, or will not, believe that his aunt and uncle were involved in the theft. “I just can’t imagine that they would,” he said sadly.
“That wasn’t the aunt and uncle that I knew.” Unfortunately for him, new incriminating evidence against Jerry and Rita Alter was found in 2018 that is certainly food for thought.
In 2018, a photograph of Jerry and Rita was found. It was dated 1985, and was taken in Tucson on Thanksgiving – just a day before the De Kooning piece was stolen. But recently there was another investigation in which the FBI found the smoking gun, as it were.
In a photo in the Altars’ personal collection, it surfaced that Jerry drove a red sports car – just like the one that had been described by the security guard on the day the painting was stolen.
Many people also believe that the police sketch of the couple, rendered in 1985, bears a striking resemblance to Jerry and Rita Alter.
And if that’s not enough evidence against them, nobody can explain how the two teachers with their modest salaries could afford to travel so extensively and own a 20-hectare property in Cliff, New Mexico.
The investigation continues, and no arrests have been made thus far. We’ll never know if the couple really did pull off one of the greatest art thefts of the 20th Century, but all evidence certainly suggests they did – and got away with it.
The De Kooning painting, ‘Woman-Ochre’, has been returned to the Arizona Museum, where hopefully it will remain safe. It has been given an evaluation of over $160 million.