The Thief Collector
(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Allison Otto
Most often, some things are better left unsaid. We don’t need to over-explain or over-share every aspect of our lives and thinking. But in some cases, like with Rita and Jerry Alter, providing clarity can help you avoid criminal allegations, lest you pass away before accusations are made and every armchair detective can pour over every word you’ve ever written or said in the hopes of declaring your guilt. While this may sound a lot like Twitter, director Allison Otto takes the whodunit model and applies it to the disappearance of Willem de Kooning’s painting “Woman-Ochre” in 1985 in her latest film. The Thief Collector attempts to untangle the web of possible lies and deceit stemming from the painting in a relatively entertaining documentary that’s frustrated by incessant circumstantial postulation.
Over 30 years after De Kooning’s painting went missing from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the Alter’s home in Cliff, New Mexico was being liquidated following both of their passings. Their home proved to be a treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, and other pieces of artwork. Much of it was valuable but most appeared to be uncontroversial possessions. Except for the valuable de Kooning painting that hung inside a cheap frame on the wall right next to the door frame.
According to the security guards and employees of the museum, “Woman-Ochre” was cut out of its frame by careful thieves who left nothing behind to investigate. For decades, the question of what happened to the painting had plagued artists, collectors, and art lovers. When it was discovered at the Alter’s home, waves of emotion hit not just the curators of the art museum, but the wider art community who were moved to tears with relief and gratitude. Soon after, though, questions about how the Alter’s came into possession of the painting were raised.
Otto interviewed acquaintances and family members of the Alters, as well as individuals associated with the discovery and restoration of the painting to better understand the couple, and whether the problematic acquisition of “Woman-Ochre” was just the tip of the iceberg.
The key piece of “evidence” used to indict them is a book of short stories authored by Jerry Alter entitled The Cup and the Lip. The book is filled with verbosity and self-absorption, alongside grand tales of murder, thievery, and a multitude of other sins. The Thief Collector considers whether it was possible these stories weren’t just the result of Jerry’s imagination gone wild. It’s punctuated with entertaining performances by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton and actress Sarah Minnich as Jerry and Rita. Could the Alters have committed the crimes Jerry wrote about, like murdering Mexican labourers and hiding their bodies in the septic tank, (which is why they never allowed their guests to flush the toilet)?
The Thief Collector doesn’t make any conclusions in the matter of the stolen painting, or any other alleged crimes, namely because it can’t. The Alters have long since passed away and there doesn’t appear to exist any substantive evidence beyond mere conjecture. But this doesn’t stop Otto from exploring the possibility of their guilt for an hour and a half.
The bottom-line theme of The Thief Collector is that we never truly know our neighbours, family, or friends. The Alters may be an extreme case of (possibly) hoodwinking all those who knew them into believing their extravagant lifestyle was legitimate, but the premise that every single one of us holds secrets is universal and intriguing. How well do we really know the people we surround ourselves with?
But The Thief Collector is less about identity and truth and more about the Alter’s possible crimes, and it’s hard to shake the superficiality and hollowness of Otto’s investigation. Had the evidence been more damning, beyond a poorly written book and presumptive character assessments made by family and friends, it might have been easier to take the allegations seriously. But the assumptions and leaps made by the interviewees feel pointless.
And while no sympathy or personal connection is felt for the Alter duo, it’s important to remember that they were real human beings and not fictional characters. Specifically, real people who are no longer here to defend themselves.
The Thief Collector engages those who are looking to have some fun by playing detective and drawing tenuous conclusions about the Alters, but if you’re looking for something beyond that, this film will have just stolen 90 minutes of your life.
The Thief Collector had its international premiere at the 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival.