Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Thief Collector

It is strange how we all enjoy watching films about art thieves, even though by stealing from museums, they deny the general public the ability to view great masterpieces, even though Raffles and Thomas Crown are admittedly charming. At first glance, school teachers like Jerry and Rita Alter would look like exactly the sort of people who would be disgusted by a museum heist, yet a notorious painting by Willem de Kooning was found in the possession of their estate. Allison Otto documents the mystery surrounding de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” and the strange secrets of the Alters in The Thief Collector, which opens Friday in select theaters.

The documentary opens with a breezy dramatic vignette that we later learn is based on one of the stories Jerry Alter published in his vanity press collection. At the time, friends and family assumed they were fictional, but through Otto’s lens, they start to look like confessionals. Frankly, the Alters’ nephew had no idea there was anything of notable value in their eccentric home when he started liquidating their estate. (The Alters were also survived buy two adult children, who were apparently not sufficiently competent to serve as their executor and make no appearance in the film.)

Nobody thought all the bric-a-brac the Alters collected during their world travels were worth much, so the donated some to a charity thrift shop and brought in Manzanita Ridge Antiques to liquidate the rest of the house. Most of the paintings on the wall were Jerry Alter’s own ugly work, but one of them vaguely rang a bell for the antique dealers. After an extensive internet search, they realized it looked exactly like “Woman-Ochre,” brazenly stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985, because it was. To their enormous credit, they could not wait to return it to the museum, especially when the vultures started to approach them.

The guys from Manzanita are definitely the heroes of Otto’s documentary. It is much harder to classify the Alters role in the story. They generally match the description of the couple presumed to have sliced “Woman-Ochre” out of its frame on an otherwise typically quiet Friday after thanksgiving. What about the other valuable works that turned up in their collection (not de Kooning level, but still nice) and how did they afford all that international travel, anyway? Plus, there is the matter of Jerry Alter’s “murder story.”

Both Alters are long gone and they clearly held their secrets closely while they were living, so we will probably never know the full truth. Nevertheless, Otto digs into the story as best she and her on-camera interview subjects (including the nephew and the Manzanita staff) can. She asks all the right questions and traces the Alters history back to their time in New York, where they traveled in the sort of Bohemian circles that could very well have included de Kooning.

There is a fair degree of speculation in
Thief Collector, but it is clearly presented as such and each premise reasonably follows from established facts. Yet, the uncertainty remains, which is also sort of Otto’s point.

Regardless, it is nice to see a film that gives the regular working-class entrepreneurs at Manzanita credit for doing the right thing. It is a weird true-crime case, responsibly presented, with a quirky southwestern flavor. (Sometimes the dramatic representations of Alter’s stories veer a little too far into campiness, but so be it.) Highly recommended for art connoisseurs and fans of art heist movies,
Thief Collector opens Friday (5/19) at the Loft Theatre in Tucson and releases simultaneously on-demand.