‘The Thief Collector’ Review: An Art Doc With an ‘Oh. My. God.’ factor

You could say, going back to Hitchcock or the silent-film era, that the thriller is the quintessential form of cinema. You could also say that the quintessential moment of a thriller is one that makes you go “Oh. My. god.” When that happens (kind of a rare occurrence these days), it’s a privileged and intoxicating feeling, one that lifts you right out of yourself. Recently, though, I’ve been experiencing that sensation in what may sound like a highly unlikely place: documentaries about the art world.

In a way, it’s not really a surprise. Art-world documentaries often tap into the human audacity of forgery and thievery, the suspense of finding and unmasking fakes, not to mention the sheer sticker shock of it all. (In 2019, when Jeff Koons’ three-foot-tall silver bunny rabbit sold at auction for $91 million, you could call that sticker shock and thievery.) But I’ve also found that an art-world doc that has the quality of a thriller, like “The Lost Leonardo” or “The Price of Everything,” might open with an outrageous or even criminal situation, but what’s every bit as jaw-dropping is the rabbit hole of reality and illusion you then then find yourself tumbling down.

Allison Otto’s “The Thief Collector” is an art documentary that builds to a supreme moment of “Oh. My. god.” At first we think we’re watching the story of a weirdly isolated act of art thievery — and for a good stretch, we are, and we’re held in thrall by it. In 1985, on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, Jerry and Rita Alter, who were retired residents of the scrub-brush desert town of Cliff, New Mexico, wandered into the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It was 9:00 am, and the museum was mostly empty. As Rita distracted a guard, Jerry walked up to the museum’s most prized work, “Woman-Ochre,” an abstract expressionist portrait painted by William de Kooning in 1955, and proceeded to cut the canvas right out of its frame. He rolled it up and concealed it, and he and Rita walked out of the museum and into a rust-colored sports car and made their getaway.

“The Thief Collector” re-enacts this robbery in staged scenes with a couple of actors: Sarah Minnich and, mugging a bit in a hideous fake mustache (which Jerry wore that day), Glenn Howerton. As it turns out, though, this brazen act of out-in-the-open thievery, as insane as it was, isn’t the strangest part of the story. The Alters took the painting back to their home and hung it, in a cheap gold frame, behind their bedroom door, so that it was more or less concealed. Their modest desert house was full of random small works of painting, sculpture, and native art, much of it gathered on their world travels. But the stolen de Kooning was just for them. It became their private masterpiece and stayed there until their deaths (Jerry died in 2012, Rita in 2017), at which point it was discovered by Dave Van Auck, one of the proprietors of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, the local company that had been hired to sell off the Alters’ estate.

The discovery of “Woman-Ochre” solved a 30-year-old art-heist mystery that had grown more sensational with the decades, since the painting, worth $400,000 when the Alters took it, was now valued at $160 million. For a while, “The Thief Collector” devotes itself to this furtive tale of “ordinary” art thievery. Directing her first feature, Allison Otto skillfully interlaces photographs and silent home movies, and she interviews art scholars like the de Kooning biographer Mark Stevens, agents from the FBI’s art-theft task force, and several of the Alters’ relatives, notably their genially perplexed mensch of a nephew, Ron Roseman (who was made executor of the estate), all to paint a portrait of who the Alters were.

Jerry, tall and dashing in a slightly geeky way, and Rita, a kind of radiant ’50s earth mother, were former New York City public school teachers (he taught music; she was a speech pathologist) who shared a passion for international travel. They found the money to take several trips a year to exotic and adventurous locales, sometimes off the grid (they would live in a hut, or slip into a country they weren’t allowed to be in). Jerry published a book of short stories called “The Cup and the Lip,” which traced the exploits of a couple very much like the Alters, through travel and assorted illegal acts. The stories, presented as fiction, portrayed the characters as adrenaline junkies, cloaked in a self-imposed air of mystery and deception.

The enigma of who the Alters were, along with theories about why they were driven to steal this particular de Kooning (it’s speculated that they might have had run-ins with de Kooning at the fabled abstract expressionists’ watering hole the Cedar Tavern), doesn ‘t strike us as all that remarkable. We keep waiting for another shoe to drop. And at last it does.

It’s all about a septic tank.

The film analyzes Jerry Alter’s short-story collection as a book of clandestine confessions: his way of telling the world all the things that he and his wife did, while still keeping those things secret. And they include some rather extreme acts. The idea that the Alters would just walk into a museum and steal a famous painting, while there’s overwhelming evidence that they did just that, doesn’t totally parse as an isolated crime. There has to be more to the story. “The Thief Collector” traces that story by filling in a pattern of criminality, culminating in one potential act that shocks our socks off. Could it be true? The key piece of evidence is a little gross, but here goes: The Alters, who built their own home, had a septic tank in the yard that they did not replace, or clean out, for 40 years. If you were a guest in their home and asked to use the bathroom, they gave you instructions not to flush anything solid down the toilet. Instead, they would dispose of it themselves.

Why on earth would anyone do that?

The movie offers an explanation, and it’s one that has a queasy plausibility (though it’s never proven). Before our eyes, the Alters become characters out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. Not just art thieves but Middle American sociopaths living outside the law. “The Thief Collector” is a nimble and entertaining dissection of a crime. It’s also a portrait of art and obsession. But by the time it makes you say “Oh. My. God.,” it’s a movie that has used art to touch something essential about how strangers — or maybe I should just say the downright strange — walk among us.

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