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The Art of the Steal

Scott Grossman

The Thief Collector (2022)

No one really knows what their neighbors are getting up to, which used to be proof of life’s rich tapestry but these days is another hot coal of paranoia in our overheating stove of unhappiness. There were some rich tapestries in the New Mexico home of deceased elderly couple Jerry and Rita Alter when their house was cleared in 2017, plus artifacts from a life of world travel and a lot of Jerry’s own fairly average art and writings. And also Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting “Woman-Ochre,” brazenly stolen 32 years earlier from the University of Arizona and found hanging out of sight in the Alter’s bedroom behind the door, like a $160-million private joke. Allison Otto’s frothy and initially amiable documentary “The Thief Collector,” screened at SXSW, grapples with the question of what the Alters may or may not have done to get the painting there. But since there’s an unavoidable Alter-shaped hole at the middle of the story, some of the historical shadows being cast over them might be coming from a more recent cultural feeling: that eccentricity must be just the visible sign of something worse.

The documentary rounds up some of the available dots and has understandably little trouble joining them. The Alters matched the description of the couple who sliced “Woman-Ochre” out of its museum frame, and their habitually detailed travel diaries are silent about where they were on the day on in question. Another blank page corresponds to another art theft from another Arizona museum. Several other anomalously valuable items turn up among the couple's house of varieties. Rita might have met Mr. De Kooning at some point, so perhaps animosity festered. And Jerry churned out unpublished novellas and travel tales, pulp stories of crimes and misdemeanors, in one case describing a museum theft with a very familiar plot.

The two key groups interviewed are the Alters’s immediate family, understandably perplexed but thinking the best; and the law officers and realtors attempting a more objective view that ultimately might be biased in the opposite direction. Mr. De Kooning is as unavailable as the Alters, and there’s an unexplored thread here about reverence for the painting from the art world versus the nonplussed reaction of a general public to the artist’s late-period matriarchal severity. Someone stapled “Woman-Ochre” into a Walmart frame and touched up the image with their own paint, and if it was the Alters then they were hardly held in awe by the aura of modernist art, and not behaving like usual art thieves either.

Throughout the film old home movie footage of the couple flickers, he a music teacher and clarinet player in horn-rimmed glasses, she a speech therapist with several grateful patients. They travel the world; they lark about; they look in love. And maybe they murdered an itinerant worker for fun, about which the documentary surely gets into deep water of a tabloid nature. It seems the Alters never fixed the broken septic tank on their property and wouldn’t let anyone inspect it. And it seems Jerry wrote a story in which a homeowner murdered a gardener and put the body in a similar tank; the documentary has Rita’s nephew and great-nephew read the thing on camera while a menacing chord plays on the soundtrack. With “Woman-Ochre” peering out of the metaphorical bedroom window, the documentary engages the local sheriff and a contractor to run geoscanning equipment over the buried tank. It’s tricky to know if the film wants to see the outline of a body or not, and it glosses over who else might have been in the property since the Alters, or indeed who lives there now. The sheriff is called away by an actual homicide, almost perfectly. The Alters, long since called away themselves, don’t give up their secrets; but everyone is allowed to have some.


I can't wait to see this documentary. Knowing what I know, I am looking forward to seeing this!

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