Tiger King meets The Thomas Crown Affair in Allison Otto’s captivating documentary The Thief Collector. As it tells the story of colorful couple Jerry and Rita Alter and their likely role in the 32-year disappearance of Willem de Kooning’s Woman – Ochre — one of the modern art world’s most valuable paintings — from an Arizona museum, it will remind you quite forcefully that truth really often is stranger than fiction.
Three decades after Woman – Ochre was brashly cut from its frame over Thanksgiving in 1985, workers for an estate sale firm hired to go through the Alters’ former home found it hanging behind the couple’s bedroom door. How on earth did two former teachers come to be in possession of a painting that experts have valued at $160 million? The answer involves a deep dive into Jerry and Rita’s penchant for exotic travel and other thrills, as well as Jerry’s efforts as a fiction writer — which may have been more rooted in reality than anyone realized.
Otto mixes interviews with the Alters’ friends and family members — who simultaneously remember them fondly and also don’t seem very surprised to believe that they could have been big-time art thieves — with recollections of the law enforcement officials, museum staff, and estate sale personnel involved in the painting’s long journey back to public gallery walls. There’s also vintage footage of the Alters on their adventures and re-enactments of the events surrounding the de Kooning’s theft. Glenn Howerton (who also narrates) and Sarah Minnich seem to be having a ball playing Jerry and Rita as a sophisticated, Nick-and-Nora-Charles-like pair who adored each other and saw themselves as destined for far more than quiet New Mexico suburban life.
The Alters’ story takes some unexpectedly dark turns, but overall The Thief Collector is breezy and fun — the kind of film that leaves you shaking your head and thinking “it takes all kinds” but perhaps also secretly wondering whether, in the right circumstances, you could have done what Jerry and Rita did. Oh, the stories that painting could tell — here’s to Otto for making sure the world got to hear about at least some of them. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: It was one of the art world’s great mysteries: The day after Thanksgiving 1985, someone cut Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” out of its frame at Tucson’s University of Arizona Museum of Art and made off with it. The modern art masterpiece seemingly vanished into the void – or more likely, into the collection of some wealthy person with criminal connections. But then it reappeared, hidden behind a door in the rural New Mexico home of a retired New York City teacher and his wife, discovered only after they both died. Allison Otto’s enormously entertaining documentary spins the improbable but true story of Jerry and Rita Alter, whose thefts probably didn’t start or stop with the de Kooning and might explain how a seemingly modest, middle-class couple could afford a globetrotting lifestyle. Comprised of recreations, snippets of Jerry Alter’s possibly self-incriminating writing, and testimonials from the Alters’ relatives, an FBI investigator, art experts, and more, the film evolves into a portrait of ego, chutzpah, criminality, and a midcentury couple determined to have it all by any mean necessary. Out of a brazen act of theft, Otto fashions an indelible, all-American tale of life, larceny, and the pursuit of adventure
Nell Minow: We often speak of a “who done it” as though the answer to the mystery is simply the identity of the person committing the crime. But The Thief Collector entreatingly and insightfully shows us that is just the beginning of the story. The recovery of a stolen masterpiece behind a door in a modest home is the beginning of a story filled with fascinating characters, from the astonished and heroically honest thrift shop owners to the aghast family members to the overjoyed curators and meticulous conservators. But the central figures in this story remain a mystery, a schoolteacher and his wife who loved to travel, and whose sense of adventure was far more transgressive, possibly homicidal, than perhaps anyone can fully understand.
Sherin Nicole If you ever wondered: How to Get Away with Art Theft, director Allison Otto lays out the blueprint in a new documentary. The Thief Collector opens with a trio of estate liquidators, who find a stolen treasure hidden behind a bedroom door. Their discovery is a painting by William de Kooning called “Woman-Ochre.” A famous work of art that disappeared from the University of Arizona Museum of Art more than 30 years ago. Thus, the mystery behind the lives of art thieves and forgers Jerry and Rita Alter begins. The couple seemed lovely to everyone who knew them but there was something sinister beneath their middle-American surface. The Thief Collector takes an in-depth, almost cold case, approach that creates a mounting sense of intrigue. Alongside writers Mark Monroe and Nick Andert, Otto delves into the personalities of the Alters and theories about their motives, ultimately revealing Rita and Jerry as thrill seekers with an undercurrent of psychopathy. The Alters could rival Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in How to Steal a Million. After all, they did it. They got away with it too (but you’re not going to believe how).
Leslie Combemale Allison Otto’s doc goes unexpected places, far beyond a simple examination of one stolen masterpiece. There’s a decided character arc, albeit with real-life would-be criminals, and one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is watching those closest to the subjects reexamine everything they thought they knew about the thieves. This is one documentary that not only reminds viewers the fun folks next door may be way more than they seem, it will have them taking another look at the quirkiest of their friends and family.
Jennifer Merin The Thief Collector is filmmaker Allison Otto’s highly entertaining documentary about a Willem de Kooning masterpiece that resurfaced 32 after it was boldly stolen from an Arizona museum. The painting, valued at about $160,000,000, was discovered by antique collectors who were called in to empty a suburban house after the occupants — a well-liked, neighborly couple — passed away. The true story is astonishing, and Otto’s take on it entails introduction of all the quirky characters, their psychological profiles, crime thriller plot twists and solid art history. The Thief Collector is solid entertainment.
Loren King The Collector Thief is one of the most bizarre and intriguing of stranger-than-fiction documentaries, combining art heist, double lives and possible sociopathic behavior. Director Allison Otto combines interviews with friends, family, law enforcement investigators and art world figures to portray the hidden lives of seemingly ordinary married couple Jerry and Rita Alter who never roused much suspicion in small town Cliff, New Mexico where they moved from New York City. Since their deaths, evidence links the Alters to brazen heists of expensive artifacts and art, including Willem de Kooning’s masterpiece “Woman-Ochre,” stolen the day after Thanksgiving in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It’s since been returned, having been discovered during an estate sale hanging in a cheap frame in the Alters’ modest house in Cliff. All this is curious enough, but the film suddenly turns surreal with evidence that Jerry Alter, seemingly a narcissist whose self-indulgent prose doubles as a confession, may have murdered undocumented landscapers on his property and stuffed their bodies into the septic tank, it turns creepily pitch black and more incredulous than the most Coen of Coen brothers movies.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Filmmaker Allison Otto’s entertaining documentary The Thief Collector is a fascinating look at the world-traveling couple Jerry and Rita Alter, whose estate included a stolen painting — Willem De Kooning’s Woman-Ochre — which had been stolen from the University of Arizona museum in 1985. As the documentary explores, the seemingly upstanding couple had a double life as adrenaline junkies and thieves. Through interviews and archival footage, the film details the story of the art thieves, their possible motivations, and how they managed an unthinkable art heist that was only solved after the couple’s deaths.
Liz Whittemore Allison Otto brings audiences one of the most audacious modern-day stories of crime and passion. A 32-year-old art heist gets the Hollywood treatment in The Thief Collector. An unassuming couple’s belongings reveal a shocking discovery. Jerry and Rita Alter hid a secret life right in plain sight. A story of theories and intrigue that gets more chilling by the minute. Read full review.
Cate Marquis Allison Otto’s entertaining The Thief Collector is one of those truth-stranger-than-fiction kind of documentaries, about a world-traveling but ordinary-seeming couple, Rita and Jerry Alter, with a secret life. When the widowed Rita Alter died, their heirs sold the couple’s rural New Mexico home and contents whole. The local resale shop owners who bought it found a home filled with art works and paintings by Jerry but also quickly discovered a long-lost valuable painting by Willem de Kooning hidden in the home, one that had been stolen from a museum in a baffling heist. But the discovery of this million-dollar-plus painting was just the beginning, opening the door to a startling tale of the secret double life of Rita and Jerry Alter, one of adventure, thrill-seeking and a two-person crime wave, which was detailed in a book of stories that everyone had assumed were fiction. Using imaginative storytelling techniques, The Thief Collector recreates some of these thriller tales, as it recounts the startling story of Rita and Jerry through interviews, stills and footage of the couple, as it paints a jaw-dropping, even chilling psychological portrait of the pair. Director Alison Otto spins a fascinating tale that draws us into the web of lies this pair wove to conceal their hidden life of crime, carried out right under everyone’s noses.
Title: The Thief Collector
Director: Allison Otto
Release Date: May 17, 2023
Running Time: 96 minutes
Screenwriter: Allison Otto (documentary)
Distribution Company: Film Rise
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin