She told herself not to cry, but when she finds out more about the painting that her grandmother had given her, she couldn’t keep the tears from coming.
An Unforgettable Day
A most unexpected chain of events led Rose to that moment. An expert appraiser was sitting across from her and they were being filmed for Antiques Roadshow. Rose had promised herself she would maintain her composure no matter how brutal the truth was, but when she learned more about the painting that she had received from her grandma, she couldn’t help but cry. Staring at the appraiser, Rose was gobsmacked and she felt as if the whole world stood still. She felt so many emotions, and they showed on her face. The appraiser gave Rose some time to recover before telling her more about her beloved heirloom. The day was truly unforgettable.
A Crowd Of Hopefuls
The popular Antiques Roadshow was being hosted by the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, and the well-known televised series had attracted a crowd of more than 5000 hopefuls who brought knick-knacks with them. They were all was eager to learn whether their valuables were worth something or they had been hoarding junk. Among the crowd was Rose, who was waiting patiently for her turn to talk to the master appraiser.
In The Family For Generations
The painting had been in Rose’s family for generations, so it was definitely priceless to her. However, she wanted to know if the artwork was worth any money or it was simply another pretty painting which would be in her house before it was passed on to another family member. She hadn’t really expected to find out more than that and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to or not.
Grandma Loved It
For as long as Rose could remember, the artwork had been in her grandma’s room, hanging above the elderly woman’s bed. Her grandma had always wanted it close to her and kept it safe because of its scenic and calming quality. She loved the painting but no one really knew whether it was an original or a print, or if it was worth anything. Rose had only started to suspect it might be an original when something pretty bizarre happened.
Something Hidden Inside
After her beloved grandma had passed, the beautiful painting was handed down to Rose, who felt truly honored to be given the piece her dear granny had loved so much. Whenever Rose looked at the painting, she felt like her late grandmother was close to her even though they were worlds apart now. One day, as Rose was admiring the frame of the painting, she noticed that there was something hidden inside.
A Small Blemish
Since it seemed like there was a small blemish spoiling the beautiful artwork, Rose took the painting outside into the light so she could get a better look at the stain. That was when she saw the small black insect which had somehow gotten wedged between the frame’s glass plate and the canvas. She carefully opened up the back of the frame and removed the glass in order to expose the painting to sunlight and air.
Getting The Insect Out
Rose took a closer look at the insect and realized it was a mosquito – the most annoying insect of them all. She carefully gripped the bug between her forefinger and thumb, but her knuckle grazed the painted canvas lightly. Her heart began to pound. After flicking the mosquito, she hurriedly placed the glass back. Later, Rose 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.” However, she only learned the truth much later.
Just What She Needed
If you ask a person what they think is the most annoying and worst bug on the planet, the most common answer will likely be the mosquito. They are good-for-nothing insects. At best, their high pitched drone keep us awake at night, and at worst they get us sick with the serious diseases that they carry. However, this particular mosquito played a part in Rose finding out the truth about the painting. The question now is what was the truth?
It Was Time
For the better part of the day, Rose had waited around to see the appraiser. Then, her turn finally came. She balanced her painting upright on the table carefully and then took a seat. She held her breath as she waited to hear what the master appraiser, Meredith Hilferty, would say about the artwork. Rose got even more nervous when Meredith sat down opposite her. The moment of truth had finally come.
What She Knows
At the start of the interview, Rose is asked whether she knows something about the artwork. Many visitors on the show do not really know anything about the pieces that they bring. Unlike them, Rose seems to know a bit about the artist who created the painting. She starts to tell Meredith what she knows. Rose said, “I know he was born in France and then he moved to northern Pennsylvania.”
A Famous Artist
The person that created the painting is Henry Francois Farny, who was a famous artist and had a legendary relationship with Native Americans. It is said that when Farny was a child, he learned the forest’s lore from the Seneca tribe who hunted in the area where the artist lived, not far from their reservation in the state of New York. Perhaps you are wondering how Rose’s grandma came to have the artwork if it was authentic.
She wasn’t sure about it but Rose explained her theory. “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’.” She also added, “And that’s what that little circle under his signature is.”
One Final Question
Nodding her head, Meredith said that Rose was correct about the artist’s history. Then, the appraiser agreed that it was possible the painting was authentic, considering the whereabouts of Rose’s grandmother at the time. However, there was still one more question that she had to ask Rose. The answer actually left the audience reeling. Meredith asked gently, “Have you had it appraised before? Do you know if she had it appraised?” Even though Rose thought carefully prior to replying, what she said was quite scandalous.
Rose said, “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.” She probably thought the painting’s monetary value was around those figures. The disbelief in the eyes of the expert appraiser is briefly evident and then, she smiles. With her tone changing, Meredith tries to hide what she already knows. Can you guess what it was?
Holding back her smile, Meredith looks at the artwork and back at Rose. Without missing a beat or changing her tone, Meredith gives her professional appraisal of the family heirloom. The way she says her opinion makes the painting’s value much more shocking. We totally understand why Rose was in utter disbelief. After hearing what Meredith said, Rose’s face begins to flush bright red. Then, a tear slowly trickles down her cheek.
The Painting’s Value
Turning to Rose, Meredith calmly tells her, “So, if we were going to put this in an auction today, I would suggest an estimate of $200,000 – $300,000.” You can tell that Rose is trying to comprehend what she had just heard, but she is too stunned to talk. Her reaction is not a surprise, though. After all, she went to the event thinking that the painting’s value was around $250 to $300 only. When she finally recovers her composure, Rose’s reaction is priceless.
After Meredith gives her evaluation, she remains silent as they get a close-up shot of Rose’s reaction. It is easy to see Rose’s face showing every emotion, from disbelief to elation. She then gives a little giggle, and tears begin to gather in her eyes. Then, she starts to sob. In the middle of crying, she asks one innocent question which actually reveals what her grandmother’s painting means to her.
Choked Up With Emotion
Although she feels choked up with emotion, Rose speaks again. “So I can’t hang it then?” she squeaks. The value of the painting she received from her grandma finally hits home and Rose realizes that she shouldn’t hang the artwork above her bed as decoration. At first, Rose’s display of emotion startles the expert appraiser, but Meredith then starts to fill in the young woman on more fascinating information about the painting.
The mesmerizing artwork shows a group of Sioux, most of them on horseback, while rounding the bend of some rocky mountain trail. It looks like the group was taking their time. The painting was created during the time when the artist was most prolific. Meredith says, “1890 is when we start to see some of his very best paintings. He represented the Native Americans in a very peaceful, tranquil way.”
“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, Charles Russell and Remington kind of would show the conflict with the Indians,” Meredith continued. The expert appraiser also added, “He really just wanted to show the Native Americans in their natural environment – without too many other things happening besides the landscape around them.”
A Tearful Reaction
“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 said while her tears continue to pour. People around the world cannot get enough of her tearful reaction when she learns that her grandmother’s sentimental and cherished painting is worth a lot of money. We are pretty sure Rose is crying tears of joy.
One woman commented, “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.” She added, “Such a heavy choice and no wrong answer, but really no right one either.” Truer words were never spoken.
Getting Attention Online
The YouTube video of Rose discovering the true worth of the treasured heirloom has gotten more than four million views. Most of the comments were also positive. It seems people have a lot of nice things to say about Rose’s honesty and depth of character. “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 added, “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.” However, not all the comments were so positive, as you might have already guessed.
Some viewers commented that they were disappointed and angry at the heirloom’s first two evaluations, which were way off the mark. Someone wrote, annoyed, “What kind of appraiser just assumes it’s a print?” Others insinuated that the evaluations could have been a scam, or maybe an honest mistake. There were some who said that it might have been evaluated by an appraiser who is a Jack-of-all-trades and who did it while conducting a broad house evaluation. We will probably never know the truth, though. On the other hand, when she found out the artwork’s true value, Rose started to get worried about one thing.
Exposure To The Elements
With a stammer, Rose asked, “Should I have left the mosquito in the back?” She was anxious about possibly having done the wrong thing when she opened up the frame to remove the bug since doing so exposed the painting to the elements. However, Meredith consoles her gently. The expert appraiser replied, “It’s actually not a bad idea that you took the bug out.” And then she explained to Rose why.
Preserving The Artwork
“Ultimately, we would like for a conservator to do that but the bug could have continued to decay and caused a stain, but no. It’s good that the bug wasn’t there anymore,” Meredith explained. The relief washing over Rose’s face is quite apparent when she understands that what she did was right. It was not a mistake that she trusted her instincts. We would feel the same thing if we were in her shoes.
The Right Move
In the end, removing the mosquito on the painting turned out to be a good idea. As Meredith explains, a conservator could likely have worked on the stain which the bug could have caused, but the removal of the mosquito resulted in a two-fold effect. First off, the painting was saved from any more possible damage. However, the hapless mosquito also played another important role, which ultimately helped Rose find out the true value of her grandma’s painting.
A Much Larger Role
This insignificant and tiny mosquito actually had a much larger role in this story — it pointed Rose in the right direction and gave her some hope that there was more to her grandma’s painting than met the eye. Without the mosquito, she likely would have never thought of inspecting the painting or even taking it to the event to be appraised. However, as some commenters quickly pointed out, Rose now has to make a very big decision.
A Difficult Decision
If you were Rose, what would you do? Would you keep the sentimental heirloom you receive from your beloved grandmother, or would you let it go for financial stability? You could pay off a house or square your college debt if you sell the painting, or would you rather hang it up in your college dorm room, like Rose had intended to do? She had no idea she was actually sitting on a fortune, which makes her reaction priceless. However, some people are aware of the true value of the artwork they own, and they will do everything to hide it from the world…
The call shattered his world. As the FBI explained to him what his favorite uncle and aunt had done, he was like a deer caught in the headlights. He refused to believe what they said. He just couldn’t believe that the family members he knew and loved were guilty of one of the biggest crimes committed during the ‘80s. However, a seed of doubt sprouted in his mind. He wondered if we really know everyone around us, like our neighbors, friends, and relatives.
Houston resident Ron Roseman thought Rita and Jerome Alter were truly model citizens. The couple was well-educated and friends and neighbors alike in their community loved the pair. They were school teachers and had saved enough money so that they could travel all seven continents. His uncle’s stories were particularly mesmerizing for Ron. However, Jerome and Rita actually led a secret life, and Ron only learned of this story much, much later.
Normal As Can Be
It seemed like the Alters were normal, middle-class citizens that had set up house in Cliff, New Mexico back in the ‘70s. Jerry loved traveling, adventure, and art, while Rita appeared to be a great person all round, showing kindness to everyone she met. A speech pathologist, Rita was really supportive when Jerry made a decision to retire at the age of 48. He was a music teacher, but he wanted to have the finer things in life.
Kept To Themselves
Their neighbors knew Jerry and Rita, but they later said that the couple kept to themselves. No one really suspected that the pair was hiding a really big secret. Jerry passed away due to natural causes in 2011, and Rita followed 5 years later. The couple left behind two adult children, Barbara and Joseph. Ron Roseman had been left as their estate’s executor purely because he lived nearest to Cliff, New Mexico. If he hadn’t been the Alters’ executor, the couple’s crime may have never been exposed.
Up For Sale
Ron decided it would be best to sell the Alters’ home in Cliff, so he invited a lot of dealers to come and assess the couple’s possessions. A lot of the items were sold and carted off within only a couple of days. Paintings, African artifacts, and pieces of furniture were snapped up by the highest bidder. David Van Auker, an antique dealer from Silver City, bought everything for only $2000.
Ron had hoped to get much more than $2000, but he was glad that he could finally wind down his late uncle and aunt’s estate. He had no idea that something priceless was among the items the antique dealer loaded into his car that fateful day. Ron had never suspected this particular item was under investigation for 33 years. Little did he know that the case would be blown wide open.
David Van Auker was really happy with the bargain that he had found. He started to sort and appraise the assets that he had bought for a pittance, but while he was inspecting the items, his eyes kept going back to one specific item. Whenever he looked at it, he felt something that he couldn’t explain. However, he only found out what it was after digging deeper into the mystery.
Getting Plenty Of Attention
That evening, after deciding to call it a day, David went back home in Pinos Altos in New Mexico. However, the next day, one of his recently acquired pieces quickly gained a lot of attention. It just so happened that an artist who has a sharp eye walked into Manzanita Ridge Antiques, David’s antique dealership. The person said five words which prompted David to get in touch with the FBI, who then phoned Ron Roseman.
Ron recalled, “It’s my favorite aunt and uncle.” He went on, “You know I couldn’t imagine…you know scenarios running through my head…I felt like a deer in the headlights.” Initially, Ron refused to believe the accusations that the FBI made against Jerry and Rita. Then, the reality of everything slowly sinks in. Was it possible that his own beloved uncle and aunt pulled off one of the boldest heists in the history of the US?
The Fateful Day
In the early morning of the 29th of November in 1985, a security guard opens up the door of Tucson’s largest and most well-known museum to allow a staff member to pass. The museum hadn’t officially opened for the day yet. However, that doesn’t stop the then unknown couple in approaching the guard and starting a conversation. Looking at the couple, the guard probably didn’t suspect anything nefarious would happen.
Causing A Distraction
The woman, who looked like she was in her 60s, starts to chat idly to the guard. She talked about anything that she could think of. While the two were chatting about art and the weather, a man went into the building unnoticed. He headed to the third floor. After a few minutes, the man reappeared next to the woman, and the couple made a hasty retreat. They drove away in a rust-red sports car.
Since the security guard got suspicious that the couple left without going inside the museum, he went to investigate. However, he already had a sinking feeling about the whole thing. It was 1985, and at that time, the museum had no security cameras inside which could have caught the man in the act. As soon as the security guard saw the empty frame, he knew what had happened. The couple stole the artwork.
A Priceless Painting
A priceless painting by the famous Dutch artist Willem De Kooning called ‘Woman-Ochre’ was missing. Only a piece of canvas was left. The painting had been cut out using some kind of blade. The police didn’t find any fingerprints. The only clue they had was the description of the mysterious pair and their getaway car that the security guard told the authorities. They also didn’t have a license plate number.
A Prominent Painter
A prominent painter, Willem De Kooning created abstracts during the mid-century expressionist movement. His paintings are extremely valuable. In fact, one of his paintings has fetched a staggering $137.5 million. For more than three decades, the infamous art heist of the ‘Woman-Ochre’ had been unsolved. It was only when an unassuming dealer realized that there was something in his antique store in Silver City which probably shouldn’t have been there.
A Piece Of History
David Van Auker didn’t really think much of the abstract painting which he had purchased from the Alters’ estate sale. However, when an artist walked into his store, saw it, and exclaimed, “That’s a Willem De Kooning!” David started to realize that he might have chanced upon a significant piece of history. He decided to conduct some research and came across the article about the heist. A painting had gone missing in the Arizona Museum of Art. He couldn’t believe what he was reading.
David’s astonishment quickly turned into fear as he realized what he possessed. He needed to keep the artwork away from prying eyes. However, the only door which locked in his store was the bathroom. Therefore, he placed the 40-by-30 inch painting inside and locked it. “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,” he later explained. Then, he phoned the Tucson museum.
The Phone Call
Curator for UAMA Olivia Miller said, “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.” She continued, “I don’t think I honestly thought it would actually happen.” Olivia was naturally sceptical at first, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as some people find it fun to do something like this as a joke. However, David revealed a crucial detail which changed everything.
In The Detail
David said something that made the curator think the call was definitely not some kind of joke. “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,” recounted Olivia Miller. “Ok, that’s just a detail that – nobody could just say that.” That was when Chief Brian Seastone received a call.
Cracking The Case
For more than 30 years, Chief Brian Seastone investigated the De Kooning painting’s theft. He always felts in his heart that one day, he would crack the case. Seastone said, “I just had this feeling.” He went on, “So, 32 years later I got to see the tears of joy and happiness as it really did come home.” It’s amazing that he believed the case would still get solved even after three decades.
The painting was carefully examined soon afterward and they found the signature to be authentic. There was no question – it was the missing painting. However, the most surprising detail would have to be the fact that the Alters hung it behind their bedroom door away for over three decades. They likely did it to hide it from prying eyes. What’s more, new evidence suggests that the seemingly ordinary couple had in fact stolen the painting.
For Their Eyes Only
Co-owner of the antique shop, Buck Burns, said, “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.” He went on to say, “Not for anybody else. It was hung behind that door and when that door was open nobody could see it.” The most incriminating evidence was actually under everybody’s noses all along.
In 2011, Jerome “Jerry” Alter’s book of short stories was released. It was titled ‘The Cup and the Lip’, and there is one fictitious story in it that is about a woman and her daughter stealing a 120-carat jewel by distracting the museum guard and leaving in a getaway vehicle. Once the pair arrives home, they place the jewel in a hidden panel in their home. There the jewel stayed for their viewing pleasure.
As for Ron Roseman, he could not, or would not, believe that his beloved aunt and uncle were responsible for the heist. He said sadly, “I just can’t imagine that they would.” He added, “That wasn’t the aunt and uncle that I knew.” However, there was new evidence that came to light and unfortunately for Ron, it incriminated Jerry and Rita Alter. It was found not too long ago, in 2018.
In 2018, a photo of Rita and Jerry was found. Dated in 1985, the picture was taken in Tucson, Arizona on Thanksgiving – a day prior to the theft of the De Kooning piece. However, there was another more recent investigation where the FBI discovered the smoking gun. In a photo that was among the Alters’ personal collection, Jerry can be seen driving a red sports car which looks a lot like the one the security guard had described on the day the artwork was stolen.
The Police Sketch
Many people believe that Jerry and Rita Alter have a striking resemblance to the police sketch of the suspects which was rendered back in 1985. If that isn’t enough evidence against them, no one can explain how two teachers with modest salaries could afford to buy a 20-hectare property located in Cliff, New Mexico and travel so extensively. On the other hand, no one would also expect a couple of teachers to pull off one of the biggest heist in American history.
Return To The Museum
The investigation continues, but there have been no arrests so far. We’ll probably never know if Jerry and Rita Alter really did get away with one of the most brazen art thefts in the 20th Century although all evidence definitely suggests they did. As for the ‘Woman-Ochre’, the De Kooning painting that has been missing for over 30 years, it is now back in the Arizona Museum. Hopefully, it remains safe there. It has been evaluated and is valued at over $160 million.