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A de Kooning Theft Comes to Film

Tue, 12/13/2022 - 10:31
A scene from "The Thief Collector," in which Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich, actors, stood in for the subjects in a series of re-enactments of scenes from their lives. These included the theft of a de Kooning painting, "Woman - Ochre" in Arizona..

A Willem de Kooning painting missing from the University of Arizona Art Museum since 1985 has been back on view since October. It is also the subject of a film shown at last week's Hamptons Doc Fest.

"The Thief Collector" is about the museum heist, which took place during a Thanksgiving weekend over three decades ago in Tucson, and the painting's journey home. But it is also about the couple who snatched it and their motivations. 

Allison Otto, the director, and Caryn Capotosto, the producer, already knew "who done it" by the time they set out to make a film. As they delved more deeply into the story behind the theft, the question that intrigued them was why.

"Woman Ochre" was painted in New York City in 1955 (the artist moved to East Hampton full time in 1963) as part of de Kooning's "Woman" series. After going on view at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, it was purchased by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. He donated it, along with a collection of 200 other objects, to the museum in 1957.

The painting remained on the walls there until it was cut out of its frame, rolled up, and taken out of the building. According to a New York Times article, it was valued at $400,000 at the time of the theft. As the market for Abstract Expressionists climbed over the next few decades, people who remembered the theft were surprised to hear the painting was now worth north of $160 million. But it wasn't until the deaths of Jerry and Rita Alter, his in 2012 and hers in 2017, and the cleaning out of their house in rural Cliff, N.M., that the painting was discovered hanging behind their bedroom door. 

Badly damaged from the apparent rolling, with numerous paint losses, and in a cheap frame, the painting didn't look like much when it was found as the house was cleared by a team brought in by an antiques store that had purchased all of the contents for $2,000. It took tips by visitors to the store and some research before anyone realized what they had. Once known, the proprietor immediately returned the painting to the museum, and it was restored by the Getty Conservation Institute in California.

The film uses recreations, interviews, still photos, and vintage video and film to tell its story, which involves tracking down everyone involved: museum employees, conservators, antiques store workers, family and friends of the Alters, art theft experts from the F.B.I., even de Kooning's biographers. Actors were employed to recreate the day of the theft and other key scenes from the Alters' lives.

After the Doc Fest screening in Sag Harbor, the director and producer discussed the film over Zoom in the theater. Ms. Otto, who began her research in 2019, said she initially saw it as a piece for the BBC, where she was doing freelance work at the time.

She first became aware of the theft and recovery through Smithsonian magazine. "I started to dig into the story a bit more . . . then I realized that it was a much richer story and that the theft itself is kind of just the tip of the iceberg."

She became fascinated by the "psychological motivations of this couple." Mr. Alter had left behind a self-published collection of short stories that followed the adventures of a couple who went around the world plundering treasures and committing other crimes with verve and polish.

"As I started to read Jerry's stories, I felt like those were such an insight into his character and how each of the protagonists in his stories were basically avatars of himself and his wife. Then I realized that it would be much more intriguing to really weave in those stories and to explore the possibilities of what might have happened."

Ms. Capotosto said those stories and the details gathered from the people involved in the theft and recovery became the breadcrumbs that gave insight into who the couple might be behind scrims otherwise indicating a private and quiet life. "And then once we had that, we started really figuring out that we could have fun with how we were going to tell the story utilizing those different elements," she said.

In the film notes, Ms. Otto said collectors had been regular subjects in the short films she had made prior to this. "Quirky, character-driven stories about people who go to colossal lengths for the things they obsess about and collect has been a common thread in my films."

"In 'The Thief Collector,' however, the obsessions of Jerry and Rita Alter, and their desire to collect, leads us on a very different journey." As the notes summed it up, "This story is a mind bender."


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