Allison Otto’s documentary The Thief Collector begins with a captivating little story. In 1985, a De Koening painting titled “Woman-Ochre” was stolen from the University of Arizona, vanishing without a trace. In 2017, after the passing of elderly couple Jerry and Rita Alter, who were by all accounts unassuming, well-liked retired high school teachers, “Woman-Ochre” was found hanging in a cheap frame in the corner of their bedroom.
From there, The Thief Collector expands from a peculiar little tale about a painting being stolen and its return home into a strange tale of a seemingly quiet couple that were in fact thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies with a desire for adventure through unconventional (and perhaps even nefarious) means.
Playing on many of its crime documentary predecessors, The Thief Collector includes the occasional glossy, sometimes bordering on campy, reenactment and actor voiceover, with Glenn Howerton as Jerry and Sarah Minnich as Rita, offering Hollywood-version presentations of this strange couple either gallivanting about their travels and schemes or recreating the stories that Jerry was known to write for fun. Otherwise, The Thief Collector’s narrative is told by either those who discovered Jerry and Rita’s unexpected treasure troves, like the sweet little old lady running the thrift store that unexpectedly obtained artwork of great value and the incredibly endearing group of antique restoration workers, or those that knew Jerry and Rita personally, like their kindly remaining family members or the couple who now own the Alter’s home.
After discovering the De Koening painting, everything close friends and family knew about Jerry and Rita seemed to ultimately only be half the story. Family members’ memories of Jerry and Rita being frequent travelers are tainted by the discovery that the Alters also seemed to enjoy stealing art from the places they traveled. Family members had no idea when they visited the Alters’ home that they were sitting among hundreds of thousands of dollars of stolen art and artifacts.
Memories of Jerry being both a little self-important and a jack of all trades and a master of none — teaching music at school, painting mediocrely, and self-publishing a book of short fiction — is in fact perhaps an understatement for a man bordering on narcissistic. When an expert in museum restoration notes that the De Koening seems to have been inexpertly retouched by someone, one can’t help but wonder if Jerry’s hubris is involved in such a weird attempt. And as family members begin to confirm that many of the short stories in Jerry’s self-published book seem to parallel to actual events in the couples’ lives, one starts to wonder if all of the stories are partially true — including, most disturbingly, the ones of violence.
As more and more ties are made between actual events and the tales in Jerry’s supposedly fictionalized work, and as the line between fact and fiction is continually blurred, we inch closer to some much darker potential truths. And as people grow increasingly comfortable talking about Jerry and Rita’s flaws, we begin to paint a portrait of people who were perhaps harmful beyond a propensity for art thievery.
The Thief Collector is a wonderful little amalgamation of what can make documentaries so entertaining — a story almost too strange to be true, a little bit of mystery, some occasional revelations that peel back some exciting twists and turns, the feeling that something or someone extremely strange can live and die right under our noses without us ever knowing. But perhaps what makes The Thief Collector work so well is the way that the story is not told by the strange, maybe even cruel, narcissist at the heart of it, but by the loving, good-hearted people willing to pick up the pieces and make things right in the wake of the damage of the Alter’s secret lives.