In The Thief Collector, Thrill-Seeking Fantasies Turn to Criminal Delusions

Ordinary people, exceptional thieves

In 2017, antique dealer David Van Auker unknowingly came into possession of a rare stolen artwork, valued at $160 million, for which he paid a comparatively modest sum of $2,000 at an estate sale. Woman-Ochre, by Willem de Kooning, had once hung at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, until thieves cut it straight out of its frame in 1985. Found decades later in the unassuming Cliff, N.M., home of Jerry and Rita Alter – a retired music teacher and a language therapist – the painting hung in a paltry corner of the couple’s bedroom, peeking out from behind an open door. Amused though not terribly intrigued by the work, Van Auker displayed the painting at his furniture store, until a customer recognized it as the missing masterpiece.

The Thief Collector recounts the thrilling rediscovery of Woman-Ochre but it more closely examines the distorted rationales of the quirky, adventure-seeking couple who presumably committed this ambitious heist. Director Allison Otto said the documentary “makes you wonder how well do you really know those around you, and how far would you personally go for something that you covet?”

Otto first encountered the story of the mysterious couple in an online article in Smithsonian magazine. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll dig into this a little bit.’” As Otto investigated, and spoke with the Alters’ family members, she realized there was “a much, much deeper story” to the theft and the Alters were “much more complicated” than what she read about initially.

During their lifetimes, the Alters’ criminality remained obscured by their social respectability, but in their deaths, their deviance continues to be uncovered. “I was haunted by this story for months after I first found out about it,” said Otto. “This is not your traditional true crime story.”

Otto explained that “part of the puzzle was really figuring out who they were.” To do so, she turned to the family’s extensive collection of photographs and home videos, teaming up with editors to sort through 11,797 slides and hours of 8mm footage. The ephemera documented the couple’s private lives and their extensive world travels, but most importantly, it revealed a photograph of the couple at a Thanksgiving dinner in Tucson, Ariz., in 1985, the day before Woman-Ochre was stolen from the nearby museum.

While the crime was never traced to the couple by authorities, Jerry Alter, a hobbyist painter and writer, published an array of theatrical short stories, one of which describes a woman – with eerie similarities to wife Rita – who distracts a museum security guard while her husband swipes a priceless work of art. Otto worked with Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Sarah Min­nich (Them) to reenact moments from Jerry Alter's collection, lifting the scenes narration directly from the original text. The director describes Jerry's writing as having a drugstore novel kind of feel, but she observed that the melodrama offered a deep look into [Jerry's] psyche and illuminated who he wished he was versus who he was in real life.

Documentary Feature Competition

The Thief Collector

World Premiere

Sunday, March 13, 6pm, Alamo South Lamar

Monday, March 14, 12:30pm, Violet Crown Cinema; 1pm, Violet Crown Cinema

Thursday, March 17, 2:15pm, Alamo South Lamar

Online: March 14-16

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Film 2022, David Van Auker, Willem de Kooning, Woman-Ochre, Jerry Alter, Rita Alter, Allison Otto

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