EXCLUSIVE: One of the hottest genres in filmed entertainment right now – fiction or nonfiction – are swindler stories, movies or series that delve into people who present a false front while committing nefarious deeds. Think of Inventing Anna,The Tinder Swindler or Bad Vegan.
The new documentary The Thief Collector, which just premiered at SXSW, fits into that absorbing category. “Plain and simple: This story is a mind bender,” notes director Allison Otto.
The documentary, an acquisition title out of SXSW, centers around a mystery – the theft of Willem de Kooning’s masterpiece “Woman-Ochre,” which vanished from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson in 1985. More than three decades later the painting, valued at $160 million, was found hanging in the rural New Mexico home of Jerry and Rita Alter.
“The Thief Collector takes a deep look at how, and why, this mild-mannered couple pulled off one of the greatest art heists of a generation,” reads a synopsis of the film, “exploring the complicated dynamics of family, the contours of criminality, and just how far people will go to weave their own grandiose narratives.”
In a director’s statement, Otto observes, “An essential part of this story was a book of short stories penned by Jerry Alter shortly before his death. Jerry told his nephew that all of these stories were based on his real-life experiences, and many of the protagonists in these stories are thinly veiled versions of Jerry and Rita themselves. The fantasies embedded within these stories provided us with a way to delve into Jerry Alter’s psyche and an opportunity to merge documentary with a bit of tongue-in-cheek narrative. Actors Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich did an amazing job of bringing the magical realism of these stories to life.”
In some respects, the Alters lived ordinary lives, working as school teachers. Yet, privately, they appear to have seen themselves as heroes and connoisseurs on an epic scale. The only outward evidence of this, perhaps, was a propensity for world travel that, only in retrospect, appeared beyond their limited means. The theft of the de Kooning may not have been their only caper.
“The crime in this story is the jumping off point,” says Otto, “for a character-driven deep dive into what happens when an obsession turns unhealthy and when a collector’s self-curated fantasies about their life collide with reality.”
Cinetic Media is handling sales of The Thief Collector. Otto directs; producers are Caryn Capotosto, Jill Latiano Howerton, and Josh Kunau. The film is written by Mark Monroe and Nick Andert. Executive Producers include Bryn Mooser, Kathryn Everett, Tony Hsieh, Andy Hsieh, Justin Lacob, John Boccardo, and Derek Esplin.
Watch the trailer above, which offers a glimpse of “re-enactors” Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich making off with a very valuable de Kooning.
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