With the flood of murder podcasts and documentaries seemingly never-ending, true crime as a genre is in need of a serious makeover. While such subcategories certainly have their place in the genre and the mass appeal remains undeniable, the popularity of shows like Dahmer and My Favorite Murder has dominated the landscape for over a decade, and serial killer portraiture represents nearly 40 percent of published true crime material. What space is left for the non-homicidal baddies? Amidst the sensationalist bedlam, there have certainly been popular tales of espionage, cult crazies, and hoaxes that have landed with some lasting power, but for the most part, these have been mostly swept under the blood-stained rug of our collective short-term memory. Allison Otto’s The Thief Collector, then, is a most refreshing documentary that gives true crime the America’s Next Top Model moment it needs.
In 1985, Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre was, quite literally, ripped from the walls of the University of Arizona’s art museum. Authorities, including the FBI’s art crime team, spent decades attempting to track down the painting, expecting it to show up in underground markets. When no such back-alley transactions occurred, they essentially gave up, and the university wrote off the loss. But in 2017, when Ron Roseman was organizing the estate of his aunt and uncle, Rita and Jerry Alter, he called in a local auction house to review some of the eccentric artwork and artifacts the couple had accrued across their half-century of travels. When a customer offered them $200,000 for a work they all thought was, well, quite ugly, suspicions arose. Some calls were made, and the painting was confirmed to be the missing de Kooning, now valued at $160 million. Mystery solved — well, sort of.
Art heists aren’t all that uncommon; in fact, just this week a man was charged in the theft of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. This one seems straightforward enough — the Alters visited the museum, distracted the guards, cut the painting from its frame, and made off with it, hanging it in their home to admire for years to follow. Thankfully, the Alters are much more interesting than that. You see, Jerry and Rita had quite a number of near-priceless artifacts in their home. Before calling in experts, Roseman had donated several pieces to a local thrift store. The store investigated these items and ended up selling them for more than $100,000 — a pretty hefty haul for a store that makes its mint selling used bowls for $1.99. So how do two school teachers become international art thieves? We may have never known, had Jerry not decided to self-publish a book before his death. The collection of semi-autobiographical short stories includes one account of a pair of jewel thieves. Another details a man killing his handyman and burying the body in the septic tank (the Alters didn’t allow people to flush their toilets and didn’t have their septic system pumped for more than 40 years, which even the plumber found more than a little suspicious). With both Jerry and Rita gone, there’s no way to confirm the authenticity of these stories, but there’s no denying that the coincidences line up.
These stories form the backbone of The Thief Collector, in which Otto carefully parcels out each new tidbit of information in dramatic fashion. Interviews with family members, former students, FBI Agents, and a number of other tangentially involved parties are all interwoven to slowly reveal each detail of the Alters’ twisty story. But a fantastical tale deserves a fantastical retelling, and Otto delivers that in the form of reenactments from Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich, playing the shady couple. These scenes, though not constituting a major portion of the film, set its tone and lend The Thief Collector an appealing whimsicality, in contrast to the direness of so many real-life accounts of barbarous villainy. While such an approach could have easily fallen into cheap Drunk History-style shenanigans, the combination of Otto’s execution and Howerton and Minnich’s presence brings a waggishness to the proceedings, and imbues genuine personality into two real-life characters who clearly had a lot of it. The Thief Collector is just what true crime needs to push its way out of the morgue, and Otto may just be the Tyra Banks the genre is looking for.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 20.