"He wasn't sloppy. Everything he did was meticulous."
On the day after Thanksgiving, 1985, Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" was cut from its frame at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Within seconds one of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century vanished. Unsolved for over 37 years, the priceless piece of art wouldn't resurface until a man pulled back a door while rummaging through an estate in Cliff, New Mexico.
It was one of the most bizarre stories to hit the art world. But even with the discovery, a mountain of questions remained. Director Allison Otto attempts to provide some answers and context to the infamous heist, digging into the tale's complex and peculiar dynamics that make you lean forward in shock and awe.
Otto works to set the stage early. A couple, both teachers near their home in New Jersey, have a knack for the lavish trip. Never one to venture off on a simple, mundane adventure, they incorporate art, history, and culture into their voyages. They thrive on the adrenaline from such danger by taking small planes and getting smuggled into areas they aren't permitted to go. But few back home knew of such jeopardies.
To the town of Cliff, Jerry and Rita Alter are the heads of a traditional family. A fifty-year-old couch in their living room represents a frugal life, minus the souvenirs and replica artifacts that clutter the walls and side tables. So when the Kooning painting, valued at over $160 million, is discovered, everyone in town is surprised. But at the same time, they aren't.
Interviews with family and friends shine a light on the unique couple, though you can't help but question what is and isn't true. A bit more than meets the eye, the Alters had a knack for deception and Jerry a need for control.
At one point, unable to hold in his stories, Jerry took up writing. He eventually published a book of short stories titled The Cup and the Lip. Presumed fiction, many didn't pay the book much attention. However, posthumously, the collection has garnered more focus as questions now exist over its eerie similarities to some of the couple's trips.
That is only one example of revelations that have further complicated this truly remarkable story. Otto is permitted unrestricted access to those in Cliff. In-depth interviews with nearly everyone associated with the couple help paint a better picture, though each story carries a heavy bag of uncertainty. No one appears to have known the true Alters, not even Ron Roseman, Rita's nephew and the executor of their estate.
Ron opens up at great length about his aunt and uncle. His words weigh the most as we build a character profile of the infamous couple. But he was also left in the dark. When a run of museums initially turned a blind eye to their art collection, Ron donated it to a thrift store. That donation was authentic and valuable, netting the store almost $130,000 after a competitive auction.
These instances personify the lack of information we have on both Jerry and Rit, the knowledge we do have begs for a considerable pause. Otto handles the skepticism, leaning into the suspicion, almost poking fun as everyone looks on with mass curiosity.
While no one can prove Jerry and Rita stole the painting, no one outwardly questions their involvement. If questions do arise, they center on the why of the situation, not the whom. And if the Alters successfully navigated this heist, are we to assume there weren't others?
At times the film does get overwhelmed with itself, unable to decipher which angle it should take on a particular point. Much like a dog jerks its head when it sees a squirrel, The Thief Collector can't quite keep focus as tangents sprout at nearly every turn. But Otto keeps it reigned in. Though we find few answers, the story surrounding Willem de Kooning's "Woman-Ochre" 's swiping is one for the ages. That of its likely thieves, one even grander.