The Thief Collector (2023) Review: An Intriguing Art Heist That Sheds Light on an Everyday (?) Couple

The Thief Collector (2023) Review

The Thief Collector (2023) Review: “To own wealth is to be possessed by it. Stolen assets are not safe anywhere. It can only bring disquiet…forever imprisoning their owner in an insidious embrace.” These lines are lifted from the book ‘The Cup and The Lip’ by H. Jerome Alter, the other half of the Alters pair, who are responsible for stealing some of the most sensational objects in history. The fabled list of crimes of this couple came to the limelight with the discovery of the stolen ‘Woman-Ochre,’ a painting worth $160 million by Willem de Kooning.

It belongs to the famous Women series of this Dutch-American abstract expressionist painter that has been controversial and legendary at the same time for depicting the figure of a woman using unpredictable and violent brushstrokes. Woman Ochre was exhibited at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, when it got stolen in 1985.

The Alters are believed to have stolen the painting from right beneath the nose of the museum authorities, and it was only to be found 32 years after its disappearance hanging in the bedroom of their house. Allison Otto’s documentary, The Thief Collector (2023), charts the story of this heist through interviews with the group who discovered the painting, the extended family of the late Alters, the police, etc., to construct a tale – half myth, half reality – of Jemore and Rita Alter, two teachers who moonlighted as ‘thrill seekers’ when it came to collecting souvenirs from their extensive travel around the world.

Once you start learning about who the Alters were, you are going to be constantly fascinated by them, especially since the identities are constructed with the help of Jerome Alter’s book, the journals, and the testimonies of the people around them.

Their identities are constantly changing. At one point, their friends express doubt about the source of the funding for their globe-trotting travels. While contemplating that they were so ordinary people, it is difficult to believe that they committed such a sensational crime and barely put any effort into concealing the painting from the world’s eye.

The Thief Collector (2023) Review
Sarah Minnich and Glenn Howerton in The Thief Collector (2023)

Of course, it is impossible to tell whether or not they actually did it and shed light on their mindset about stealing. In fact, the conjectures also knock at the idea of a possible murder committed by Jerome Alter.

Is this all real? Well, who knows! Otto’s documentary feeds on the intrigue that the idea of true crime can cause among people and the extent to which they will go to unearth the truth. It is also the driving force of this intrigue around the Alters that make watching 96 minutes of this documentary feel like a breeze.

One of my favorite bits from the documentary is when commoners exchange their ideas about Kooning’s painting. While you see the ecstasy and relief of art curators and museum operators once the painting is discovered, a young man talks about how it looks like something extracted from the junkyard. This extreme difference between public opinions also forms the basis of art. Jerome and Rita Alter, in their sublime existence as either master heisters or ordinary school teachers, also achieve the same status as this priceless painting.

The problem here, however, is that Otto decides to stage a dramatization of the act of theft that the Alters may have conducted at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. It feels gimmicky. It leaves little to the imagination of the audience, immediately reducing their audacious act to mere theft. This dramatization – splashed with some color –  ties up the wonderful credit scenes at the start of the documentary, but that’s all.

The overarching story is also fit only for a short skit, making it feel a little watered down in the course of its runtime. The Thief Collector (2023) broaches a map featuring the contours of criminality not on a grandiose scale but among everyday people. It will make you want to squint with suspicion at every other person you meet on the street, your neighbors, or your family members.

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The Thief Collector (2023) Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes
The Thief Collector (2023) Cast: Glenn Howerton, Sarah Minnich, Brandon Z Ruiz
Where to watch The Thief Collector
Ahendrila Goswami

Moody. Film Reader. Caramel popcorn hoarder. We can talk if you promise to not judge my film choices.