The making of The Thief Collector, a true-crime documentary about the theft of Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre, parallels the Arizona Museum of Art’s journey of prepping the artwork for display after a thirty-seven-year absence.
Allison Otto first read about the 1985 theft of Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson—and the artwork’s shocking discovery thirty-seven years later in Cliff, New Mexico—in a Smithsonian magazine article.
She couldn’t get the tale out of her mind.
“It was just one of those stories that haunted me for several months,” she says.
When the British Broadcasting Corporation issued a call for true-crime documentary pitches, Otto, a filmmaker and journalist, submitted an idea for a film about Jerry and Rita Alter, two retired public school teachers and the alleged masterminds behind the heist.
“I have an interest in character-driven stories and, in looking back over the types of films that I’ve done, I’m often really interested in people who are collectors of one sort or another,” Otto says. “They have an obsession about something.”
The Alters, in turn, became Otto’s obsession for nearly four years while she produced her new film The Thief Collector, which is scheduled to screen this weekend at the 2023 Boulder International Film Festival. Meanwhile, Woman-Ochre, restored and back home at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is once again on display for public viewing—a miraculous feat in itself, a museum official tells Southwest Contemporary.
The remarkable true story behind the film gained national attention in 2017 when a Silver City, New Mexico antique dealer discovered Woman-Ochre among a group of objects that he had purchased for $2,000. The oil painting, which had been cut out of its frame during the theft, was in a major state of decay.
For nearly four years, the restoration of Woman-Ochre at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles mirrored the production of The Thief Collector. Otto started producing the film at the end of 2018, and—after major COVID-19-induced delays—premiered the documentary at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March 2022. The film has since been shown at dozens of festivals domestically and abroad, receiving critical and audience acclaim.
Meanwhile, it took nearly five years to painstakingly restore de Kooning’s work, which the Dutch American artist painted in 1955 at the height of his fame. (A collector, who purchased Woman-Ochre a few years after de Kooning finished the painting, eventually donated the artwork to the University of Arizona Museum of Art’s permanent collection.)
In 2022, Woman-Ochre was finally released for public viewing at the Getty Center before returning to its home in Tucson. The painting’s estimated value has skyrocketed—to between $100 and $160 million, according to news reports—since its theft.
Olivia Miller, UAMA interim director and curator of exhibitions, is ecstatic to have the painting back.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Miller. “Thankfully, some of the staff from 1985 are still around, and they’ve been able to come back and see it again.”
The university museum has created a temporary special exhibition dedicated to the painting, its provenance, and its remarkable recovery—de Kooning produced the work as part of his controversial Woman series, noted for what many consider grotesque portrayals of women’s bodies. Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre is scheduled to remain on display through May 20, 2023, after which the painting will return to its original place alongside the rest of the permanent collection.
“It will hang up on the same wall that it did previously,” Miller says, clarifying that it is now much safer there. “Security-wise, the museum is very different than it was in 1985.”
The Thief Collector makes its next festival stop in the filmmaker’s home state of Colorado. Otto grew up in Vail and lived in Denver until 2021; she will be in attendance for the screenings, planned for 12:30 pm Saturday, March 4, at Stewart Auditorium in Longmont, and 10 am Sunday, March 5, at Boulder High School. (Streaming will also be available from March 6 through March 19.)
Whatever moviegoers might expect after watching the trailer, Otto says they should be ready for a twist. About two-thirds into filming, Otto says, the crew unearthed one of their biggest findings in the story. She wanted audiences to have a similar experience of discovery and says that, partway through, the movie unexpectedly turns.
“I think people go in thinking it’s a story about an art heist, and it is,” says Otto. “But it’s also a really deep dive into the psychological makeup of [Jerry and Rita Alter]… the theft itself is really just the tip of the iceberg.”
During his life, Jerry Alter, who died in 2012, wrote a collection of crime-related short stories that read as either pulp fiction or stranger-than-fiction accounts of his own life. Several of his stories are dramatically recreated in The Thief Collector.
“The majority of the protagonists in [Jerry Alter’s] stories are avatars of him and his wife, and the stories are very over the top,” Otto says. “It reads like one of those cheap drugstore novels kind of books.”
Glenn Howerton, the star and co-creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, plays the role of Jerry Alter.
“I was really, really fortunate to work with Glenn Howerton. He’s such a talent… he’s the complete opposite of his character in It’s Always Sunny,” Otto says of Howerton, who plays Dennis Reynolds in the television series.
Actress Sarah Minnich (who plays Brenda on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) stars opposite Howerton as Rita Alter, who died in 2017, right before her estate was split among regional antique dealers and prior to the discovery of Woman-Ochre.
As much success as The Thief Collector has found in its festival runs—a major distributor recently finalized a contract for streaming to begin this summer—it was also a learning experience for the filmmaker.
“This was my first feature documentary. It was a steep learning curve,” Otto says. “Part of me can’t believe I accomplished it.”