The Thief Collector – Review

The Thief Collector A middle-aged couple with a penchant for exotic holidays. Cliff, New Mexico. One of the most brazen art thefts in recent decades. A collection of self-published short stories revealing a potentially lethal past.

All of these seemingly unconnected strands weave together in Alison Otto’s excellent documentary, The Thief Collector, which swings effortlessly from quirky and amusing to dark and sinister. In 1985, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It was a highly valuable collector’s item that seemingly disappeared – there was no black market resale, no attempt at international smuggling. Could a pair of well-dressed teachers who lived in the middle of nowhere really be at the heart of all this?

The film opens with a house clearance crew, emptying the home of Jerry and Rita Alter. Amongst all of the trinkets picked up upon a lifelong dedication to exotic travel, a rather interesting painting is tucked behind their bedroom door. It just so happens to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And it just so happens to have been stolen.

Otto interviews everyone from art historians and university staff to removal workers and family members. All of whom paint conflicting pictures of daring art thieves and simple, middle-class people. It’s these differing versions of events that will first draw you into the Alter’s world.

There are also some lovely, stylised re-enactments (starring Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich) that imagine just how Jerry and Rita would get away with their crimes. These are gorgeously done, rich in colour, with fantastic costuming and hilariously bad disguises. They are over the top and purposefully so, as if to give you a glimpse as to how cunning and charming the Alters believed they truly were.

Because it soon becomes evident that it is crimes, plural. How else would two teachers be able to afford the lavish, adventure laden holidays that the Alters went on several times a year? Just how many of those aforementioned “trinkets” are actually priceless works of art?

Where Otto’s film takes an even darker turn is the discovery of Jerry’s collection of short stories, named The Cup and The Lip. He details seedy stories of affairs and murder; of priceless jewels stolen; of rival tribes disemboweling each other in front of snap-happy tourists. His family members and neighbours cast Jerry as a failed writer; a sort of Walter Mitty character who believed he “should have been someone”. They dismiss his stories as exactly that, with a sort of hopeful expression. Meanwhile, the art historians and removal men interviewed strongly believe that these short stories elaborate on Jerry’s (and, to a certain extent, Rita’s) more disturbing tastes.

The Thief Collector And whilst The Thief Collector has the potential to take the mother of all true crime twists, it does err on the side of playfulness, leaving us to make up our own minds as to who Jerry and Rita really were. The documentary does an awful lot of teasing, and the eager, excited “revelations” of the removal men really do keep you wondering right up until the very end. At around 90 minutes run time, it does not outstay its welcome (but it absolutely will have you puzzling it all out for days on end afterward).

What is in that septic tank at their remote home? Could De Kooning have made a pass at Rita? Was Jerry delusional with his own sense of power and fame? These are just some of the questions Otto and her team will leave prowling around in your head – to the extent that it does feel like we’ll need a follow up in a couple of years’ time.

The Thief Collector is, on the surface, some lighthearted fun about a spectacular art heist. It soon plunges you into the world of something much darker, whilst never quite letting go of its sense of drama or playfulness. A real gem of a find.

The Thief Collector is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Mary Munoz
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