The Thief Collector: Did A Seemingly Normal Married Couple Pull Off A Major Art Heist? [SXSW]

In 2017, antique dealer David Van Auker purchased a house and all its contents at an estate auction. Van Auker and his team headed out to the extremely secluded home, located in the ultra-small town of Cliff, New Mexico, and began to take inventory. The domicile was filled with what appeared to be a random assortment of art, varying in style, but all of it paled to what the group ultimately discovered: "Woman-Ochre," a painting by expressionist artist Willem de Kooning. It was an original painting, too — not a print. And that wasn't all: as Van Auker soon found out, the painting had actually been stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 and had never been seen since. 

This intriguing discovery kicks off "The Thief Collector," Allison Otto's snappy documentary about two seemingly ordinary people who may have pulled off a big art heist. Jerry and Rita Alter, the late owners of the estate Van Auker purchased, were a pair of teachers who liked to travel the world. Their family and friends thought of them as fun-loving, free-spirited, adventurous people. But they never in a million years would've thought of them as the type of people who could stroll into a museum and steal a valuable painting. 

To get to the heart of the matter, director Otto doesn't just speak with those who knew the Alters. The filmmaker also stages amusing recreations, complete with Wes Anderson-style narration that was actually written by the real Jerry Alter ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and "A.P. Bio" actor Glenn Howerton plays Jerry in the recreations and also narrates). These recreations tend to go a bit over-the-top, but add a certain panache to the proceedings. Jerry's writings elevate things while only deepening the mystery. We eventually learn that Jerry wrote an entire book of short stories he self-published, and the stories only raise more questions: are these works of pure fiction, or are they fictionalized accounts of the things Jerry and Rita really did? 

How else does one explain the fact that one of the short stories is about an art heist? 

Wild speculation

The mystery surrounding the Alters and their jet-setting life is inherently gripping, but as "The Thief Collector" rolls along it starts to feel like a car running on fumes. Since Jerry and Rita are dead there's no way to 100% get to the bottom of the mystery. Did they steal the painting? Probably! It was in their house, after all. And the filmmakers do a good job laying out a timeline that puts the couple in the vicinity of the museum at the time of the robbery. But with no definitive answer, "The Thief Collector" begins to grasp at straws. Jerry's book of short stories is used as a kind of road map, and since one of the stories involves a man murdering his wife's lover and hiding the body in a septic tank, interviewees (and the filmmakers) start to ask: "Did Jerry kill someone? And if so, should we be checking the Alter's septic tank?" 

But unlike the painting, there's zero evidence of this. It's just wild speculation, and the speculation only gets wilder as the film continues. It becomes clear that there really isn't enough here for a feature documentary. A shorter work, clocking in at perhaps an hour, could've successfully encapsulated the story and its various threads. Instead, "The Thief Collector" starts to grow tedious. The film is also oddly lacking when it comes to Rita. Jerry remains the sole focus here, so much so that most people seem to think he was the mastermind of the whole thing and Rita was following his lead. But it's also hammered home again and again that these two loved each other like crazy, and also loved chasing adrenaline. Why should we assume that Rita was some hapless accomplice along for the ride instead of an equal participant? 

None of this is to say the documentary isn't worthwhile. The story itself is too juicy to ignore, and there's a certain sweetness layered throughout. Specifically in regards to Van Auker, who probably could've found a way to make himself a fortune off the painting, but instead kindly returned it to the museum without an ounce of hesitation. The warmth from moments like this keeps "The Thief Collector" going, but I wanted something more. But maybe there's nothing more to tell. Maybe Jerry and Rita took all the answers with them to the afterlife, and all we can do now is speculate upon their wild and crazy adventures. 

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10