There is an Italian proverb that suggests one must eat 100 pounds of salt with someone before you know them. The Thief Collector, a documentary directed by Allison Otto with screenwriter Mark Monroe, centers its story around art and the mystery of knowing family. Through superbly edited interviews and archival photographs, Otto delivers masterful storytelling. In flashback and forward movement, Otto reveals a fun tale that also boggles the imagination
Ron Roseman, nephew of Rita and Jerry Alter believed he knew his aunt and uncle. Jerry and Rita Alter made their home on 20 acres of land in Cliff, New Mexico. Named executor of his aunt’s estate (Rita predeceased Jerry) Ron Roseman contracted to sell the house contents. After cleaning it up, he would sell the property. To handle the house contents, an estate manager contacted antique dealer David Van Auker. Interested in some unusual artifacts, Auker purchased the estate’s contents for $2000. Amidst the unique items, an unusual painting hidden behind the master bedroom door loomed out at Auker. However, he didn’t recognize it.
“Woman-Ochre” by William de Kooning turns up in Silver City
Auker displayed the painting in his shop. Various artists from Silver City came to visit. Joking around, one artist offered him $200,000. Then he affirmed it looked like a de Kooning. Alarmed, Auker realized he might have purchased a painting of great value for nothing. To his credit he researched the work. After some initial research, he thought it resembled Woman-Ochre by Abstract Expressionist William de Kooning. Subsequently, Auker researched further. The FBI and Sheriff’s Office became involved.
Question and after question emerged. Why did Woman-Ochre hang hidden behind a door in the home of two school district employees, one a retired NYC teacher (1977) and the other a retired speech pathologist? Thus, Otto sets in motion the fascinating, mind-bending events related to Woman-Ochre. Intriguingly, Otto reveals how the Alter’s hidden lives possibly merged with an unsolved mystery of an art heist that happened 32 years before in 1985.
Who Heisted de-Kooning’s Woman-Ochre?
One of the most valuable paintings of the 20th century, Woman-Ochre vanished from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Mysteriously, the day after Thanksgiving 1985, museum employees discovered the theft. However, no one visited the museum for very long, except a woman with sunglasses. Cleverly, the thief cut the de Kooning from its frame.
Uncovering the facts as best she can, Otto moves through the enigma of the theft. Then she peers it behind at the employee testimony and players. Incredibly, she pieces together through family narratives and interviews the lives of the Alters. After all, they possessed Woman-Ochre the day Auker removed it from the house. When queried, no one in the family remembered the painting. Nor did friends.
Thus, tying the Alters to the theft remains spurious and inconclusive. However, Otto enjoys speculation and psychological profiling using the interviews and other materials given to her by the family. Only eye-witness testimony of a woman in glasses and head scarf getting into a reddish car the day after Thanksgiving exists. Beyond that investigators never discovered any chain of evidence that would satisfy a criminal indictment. Besides, the possible perpetrators died. Also, the family have no knowledge of how the painting ended up behind the door. The crime is as elusive and fabulous as Otto’s thieves, the incredible Alters.
Jerry and Rita Alter led a double life and kept their secrets forever
Bound up in her own investigation with the Alter’s passion for collecting, Otto penetrates the veil of the couple’s hidden identities. Assiduously, she interviews friends, family members and anyone in the sphere of the investigation, including museum employees. What emerges becomes the portrait of fascinating adventure-loving and unique individuals. Not only did Jerry and Rita love one another, they took tremendous risks. Somehow they managed to fund their unusual travels to Africa and remote places. Strangely, they accomplished their travels and exotic art purchases despite their modest salaries. Beyond their sociability, independence and holiday visits, family and friends admit they never knew them intimately. But then does anyone really know family intimately, even if one lives with them?
According to Otto the investigation into the Alters turned up a book of short stories written by Jerry Alter. Jerry Alter mentioned to Ron Roseman that real-life experiences inspired his stories. Upon reading them, Otto found that the protagonists morph from characterizations based on Jerry and Rita. If we become the heroes of our own narratives, surely Rita and Jerry prove truth can be stranger than fiction. Using actors Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich, Otto attempts to secure a bit of magical realism bringing Rita and Jerry’s “fiction” to life.
There is no conclusive proof of the identity of the thieves
The uncertainty of never fully knowing or understanding human nature provides the real grist to this documentary. That question of the human factor forces one to examine oneself and one’s friends and those we deem closest to us. With uncertainty we ask, how can some families not realize their relative was a serial killer? Indeed. If the Alters did steal Woman-Ochre, that possibility forever raises the “why?” which Otto attempts to answer not to any satisfaction. Humorously, the “how” remains the icing on the cake.
If you are at SXSW, check The Thief Collector’s SXSW page for its showings. Otherwise, look for it to stream online in the documentary section of VOD channels. Or go to XTR’s webpage for The Thief Collector.