The Thief Collector is not what you might expect. Yes, it is yet another sensational art heist documentary (a descriptor that may make museum administrators cringe) but the theft of a multi-million-dollar painting is only the entry point into the film. The true mystery at its heart isn’t about the theft — it’s about the thieves.
A seemingly docile band teacher and a speech pathologist from New York City, Jerry and Rita Alter live for the adventurous international trips they take every few months. The couple goes away for weeks at a time to “exotic” locales and comes home with souvenir tchotchkes, artifacts, artworks, and epic slideshows that test the patience of their friends and family. Outside their extended holidays, the Alters affect a modest presence, and no one questions how they fund their extravagant vacation habit on two public school educators’ salaries.
Upon retiring, they move to the tiny town of Cliff in New Mexico’s sparsely populated southwest corner, not far from Tucson. On Black Friday, 1985, the Alters visit the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) and commit one of the most audacious art thefts in recent memory.
The Thief Collector, directed by Emmy-winning documentarian Allison Otto, begins with the 2017 sale of the Alter’s estate and the story of how the unwitting owner of Silver City, New Mexico-based Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, David Van Auker, came into possession of “Woman-Ochre” (1955), a Willem de Kooning painting worth an estimated $160 million that went missing from the UAMA 32 years prior. When a customer at Manzanita Ridge notices the painting and asks if it is a real de Kooning, Van Auker realizes what he has and is eager to return it.
The painting is returned to UAMA and then sent to Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum for restoration. What follows is a series of strange twists suggesting the de Kooning theft wasn’t the Alters’ only — or most sinister — crime.
In her research, Otto discovered a manuscript that reads like a confession with a side of fantasy. In 2011, Jerry Alter self-published a text-book-sized collection of short travel stories called The Cup and the Lip (perhaps derived from the saying ‘there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip’ which is roughly equivalent to ‘don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched’). In the preface to the text, Jerry says he “worked to maintain a connection with reality” by basing his tales around personal experiences.
The Cup and the Lip becomes a source for speculation about the Alters’ alter-egos. The film’s latter half presents several theories about the couple’s potential dirty deeds, backed by too-convenient coincidences. The theories are scandalous and juicy, but since the deceased couple can’t be interrogated, nothing can be confirmed.
Glen Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Sarah Minnich (Better Call Saul) ham it up in a series of madcap recreations of the Alters’ alleged escapades. These scenes — a delightful disruption in a film that gets progressively darker by the moment — are composed with a Wes Anderson-esque flair, illustrating the capricious self-aggrandizing elements of Jerry Alter’s autofictions.
The Thief Collector is an entertaining and intriguing film that will alternately have audiences laughing, cringing, and indulging in conjecture about the UAMA theft and the thieves behind it. The story of Jerry and Rita is unfinished and likely unfinishable. Still, the cliffhanger conclusion of this part-thriller-part-documentary will surely inspire more questions about the ostensibly quiet couple hiding dark secrets in the New Mexico desert.
The Thief Collector will be released in early 2023.