The Thief Collector
by Rachel Willis
There’s an old adage that you can never really know someone. In director Allison Otto’s documentary, The Thief Collector, she puts this at the forefront with a modest couple, Jerry and Rita Alter, from middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, who happened to be art thieves.
Or at least, that’s how it seems.
After an estate sale, three men, Rick, Dave, and Buck discover an unattractive painting placed behind a bedroom door. It isn’t until a local artist recognizes the painting that they look into it further. One Google search later, the men discover the painting in their possession is Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre, stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985.
So, how did Jerry and Rita, two teachers, come to have this painting in their possession?
The Thief Collector wants to answer this question.
There is a lot of reliance on Jerry’s short stories to paint a picture of two people who were “thrill seekers” (also conveniently one of Jerry’s story titles). There is documented evidence that the couple lived a fascinating and exhilarating life – one full of travel and adventure in parts of the world many will never see.
However, any writer of fiction would be appalled to think after their death, their stories would be taken as fact – and as evidence of crimes. While this could be the case for Jerry, it’s all speculation.
There is more compelling evidence to implicate the Alters in the crime, but there is a lot of filler in the documentary. Readings from Jerry’s short stories serve as narration for scripted scenes – with Glenn Howerton as “Jerry” and Sarah Minnich as “Rita”. While these scenes are an over-the-top kind of enjoyable, they’re not evidence of wrongdoing, no matter how much the filmmakers might wish them to be.
By focusing on Jerry’s stories, there is a lot of reaching rather than revelation.
Where the documentary succeeds is in its blend of interviews, in footage of the Alters’ many trips, and the vast collection of art in their home. The reenactments don’t quite fit, but they’re amusing.
Of course, the film would have been better served if it tightened its focus to what is known about the theft and the Alters. The interviews with friends and family give a good back and forth on the film’s theme – that the people you’ve known many years, maybe even your whole life, may have a dark side. It’s definitely something to ponder.