THE THIEF COLLECTOR Review: Engaging Real-World Art-Heist Doc

Allison Otto directed the documentary.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE THIEF COLLECTOR Review: Engaging Real-World Art-Heist Doc

Contrary to what we’ve seen and heard from movies and TV, real-world art heists tend to be few and far between, but in 1985, thieves stole abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting, “Woman-Ochre,” from the Arizona Museum of Art (AMoA).

Brazenly sliced out of its wooden frame during the Thanksgiving holiday break by a male-female duo in store-bought disguises, Woman-Ochre disappeared from public view, presumably sold to a wealthy private collector by contract thieves, for three decades.

Leads evaporated or grew cold, law-enforcement authorities were stymied, and the world moved on. It took the estate sale by by the Alters' executor/nephew to Manzanita Ridge Antiques (Buck Burns, Rick Johnson, and David Van Auker) for the contents to Rita and Jerry Alter’s modest home in Cliff, New Mexico, for the seemingly lost painting to resurface.

Initially, attempts by Burns, Johnson, and Van Auker to reach out to the AMoA and state or federal authorities went nowhere, mostly because the story behind the discovery (a painting found on a bedroom wall) seemed too farfetched to be believed. Eventually, however, curators from the museum and the FBI responded to claims of the painting’s unexpected location. That, in turn, led to the Woman-Ochre’s recovery, painstaking restoration by art experts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and a re-unveiling at the AMoA, its past and future home, two years later.

The story behind the theft of de Kooning's painting, its lengthy disappearance, and eventual recovery form the core of Allison Otto’s (The Love Bugs, Keeper of the Mountains) mostly engaging documentary, The Thief Collector. Named after a short story in Jerry Alter’s self-penned collection, The Cut and the Lip, The Thief Collector takes a deep, if ultimately, incomplete dive into Jerry and Rita, a NY-born-and-bred couple and school teachers who moved to New Mexico for the relative space and freedom it afforded them.

Over the next several decades, the Alters raised two children (seen in photos here, but never interviewed), became community staples, and furnished their home with art and artifacts gathered from yearly vacations to foreign countries, the more remote and inaccessible, the better.

Peeling back the motivation for the theft leads to the conclusion that the Alters weren’t moved by money or notoriety, but primarily by risk-embracing personalities (i.e., adrenaline junkies). Retaining the painting not just in their home, but in their private bedroom where no one, not even close friends or family, could see it, made the theft a decades-old secret made only more special because only Rita and Jerry knew about it.

That, however, feels like a superficial, reductive read on the Alters and the fateful day they decided to risk their personal liberty to steal the painting from an admittedly lightly-guarded museum during the off-season.

Luckily for Otto and her collaborators, the Alters were obsessive collectors (hoarders by another, more current definition), documenting their travels and personal lives through boxes filled with photos, decades-spanning home movies, and detailed travel itineraries/journals. Otto also had Jerry’s voluminous manuscript containing short stories that at times eerily paralleled the Alters’ lives, their travels, and their experiences, including their theft of the de Kooning painting and their thrill-seeking motivation.

Otto mixes recreations of the theft, using a light, seriocomic style co-starring Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich as Jerry and Rita Sadler, respectively, with the usual talking-head interviews involving art curators, the on-scene police officer who originally investigated the theft, the family nephew/executor, his son, and the trio of estate buyers who purchased the Sadler home and its contents. Otto presents the estate trio as down-to-earth types (possibly, probably true as far as that goes) and as borderline heroic for not selling or attempting to sell the painting (valued at $160M) once they confirmed its provenance.

The documentary leaves several questions unanswered, one intriguing (whether the Alters stole other pieces of art, funding their elaborate lives in the process) and one disturbing (at least two short stories center on violent acts, suggesting a darker turn to the Alters’ actions).  While on the right side of fun, the recreations feel slightly off once Otto’s investigation into the Alters and their past takes a potentially disturbing turn.

Ultimately, however, The Thief Collector confirms one of Citizen Kane’s grand themes, the unknowability of human personality. When the Alters left this world for the next, they took several, unrecoverable secrets with them.

The Thief Collector will be available on demand beginning Friday, May 19, via FilmRise Releasing.

The Thief Collector

  • Allison Otto
  • Mark Monroe
  • Nick Andert
  • Glenn Howerton
  • Sarah Minnich
  • Brandon Z Ruiz
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Allison OttoJerry AlterRita AlterThe Thief CollectorUSWillem de KooningMark MonroeNick AndertGlenn HowertonSarah MinnichBrandon Z RuizDocumentaryCrime

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