Interview'How well can we really know anyone?'

The ‘ordinary’ Jewish retirees behind a $160M art heist – and who knows what else

Alison Otto’s documentary ‘The Thief Collector’ posthumously examines the lives of Jerry and Rita Alter, who were found to have a priceless missing painting. But it gets stranger

Sarah Minnich as Rita Alter and Glenn Howerton as Jerry Alter in 'The Thief Collector.' (Courtesy Museum & Crane)
Sarah Minnich as Rita Alter and Glenn Howerton as Jerry Alter in 'The Thief Collector.' (Courtesy Museum & Crane)

Jerry and Rita Alter were a nice retired Jewish couple who relocated from New Jersey to New Mexico. He was a music teacher who wrote fiction on the side, she was a speech therapist, and together they spent their free time traveling the globe, from Anguilla to Tahiti. As it turns out, though, nobody really knew the Alters.

After the couple died, antique dealers and family members rummaging through their estate got a surprise: Hanging behind a door was a $160 million Willem de Kooning painting, “Woman-Ochre,” stolen from an Arizona art museum three decades ago. And, to top it off, one of Jerry’s short stories happened to be about a similar heist.

Was it a case of life imitating art? Art imitating life? A new documentary film, “The Thief Collector,” directed by Allison Otto, seeks to sort it all out. The film debuted at South by Southwest in March. Upcoming screenings include the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas from June 22 to July 3 and the Woods Hole Film Festival in Massachusetts from July 30 to August 6.

“One of the most unsettling things is that on the surface, they were one way, and at the core, they were completely different people,” said Otto,

And, she said, “one of the things pointed out by reviewers is, how well do you really know the people around you? Is your brother the person you think he is? Is your aunt the person you think she is?”

The Alters’ secret life was not only a shock to her, but to the couple’s nephew, Ron Roseman, whom Rita had made the executor of their estate.

“He grew up with these people,” Otto said. “He so greatly admired them. He thought they were so cool. After their deaths, he slowly came to the realization they not only stole a $160 million painting and kept it secret for 30-some years, they also might have done many more criminal endeavors.”

When The Times of Israel asked Roseman about his aunt and uncle, he said, “They were just so much fun, really interesting people. World travelers, educated… sophisticated people.”

Of their Jewishness, he said, “I’m not even sure if they had a mezuzah on their door, maybe one of the smaller ones with parchment on the inside. I don’t remember even seeing it. Inside, they had their kids’ bar mitzvah pictures, maybe a few pieces of Judaica, I think. They certainly didn’t hide the fact that they were Jewish.”

‘The Thief Collector’ director Allison Otto. (Courtesy Museum & Crane)

The Alters’ children, Joey and Barbara, are mentioned in the film, but not shown on screen. Joey has a mental health condition, and while Barbara provided Otto with family photos during production, she has since died, Otto said.

In general, Roseman said, “They always had stories to tell, my uncle in particular. I think it was very interesting to listen to him.”

Regarding the possibility that the couple committed other misdeeds, he said, “You know, it’s all conjecture. I always like to say, there are no coincidences, but when there’s like 100 of them, it’s hard to ignore.”

A series of blunders lead to a jackpot

“The Thief Collector” focuses on the day-after-Thanksgiving 1985 heist of “Woman-Ochre” from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson. Roseman’s parents lived in the Tucson area, and the Alters had visited them for the holiday.

A vivid recreation of the heist is shown, based on firsthand accounts, police reports and news coverage. Jerry, sporting a fake-looking mustache, and Rita, disguised in a kerchief and glasses, pull off a most unlikely caper: An art professor visiting the museum takes too long in the bathroom to notice two fellow patrons acting suspiciously. Rita distracts a staffer long enough for Jerry to cut the painting out of its frame.

“It was almost comical in the way it was executed,” Otto said. “All these blunders had to happen in order for these people to pull it off.”

She praised the actors who portray the couple – Glenn Howerton as Jerry and Sarah Minnich as Rita. Howerton’s credits include “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with Danny de Vito, while Minnich has appeared as Nicolas Cage’s wife in “Running with the Devil.”

“We were just really lucky working with both of them,” Otto said. “It was like winning the lottery.”

Lady Luck helped reunite the painting with the museum following Rita’s death in 2017. (Jerry had died five years earlier, in 2012.) Roseman was going through their Cliff, New Mexico, estate with his son, Isaac Roseman, and hired a local company, Manzanita Ridge Antiques, to evaluate a home filled with improbable objects inside and outside. One of the dealer’s sharp-eyed customers, James Cuetara, noticed that a painting from the Alters’ home had de Kooning’s signature on it. He made an offer: $200,000.

“To him, it looked like an authentic painting,” Otto said. “It’s why he made the offer.”

“I guess reality didn’t really set in for a little bit,” Isaac Roseman said. “Once it did, at first I said, ‘Oh wow, could this really be true?’ The FBI got back to us and said it really was true.”

“In the end, I think what counts is [the antique dealers] did the right thing,” Ron Roseman said. “They found out what it was and turned it over.”

Poster for ‘The Thief Collector.'(Courtesy Museum & Crane)

There was no smoking gun, but there was an intriguing collection of short stories penned by Jerry, “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales.” Some of the stories get recreated in the film, including one that’s about an art heist — “The Eye of the Jaguar,” in which a woman and her granddaughter steal the eponymous jewel from a museum. Another story reflects Jerry’s background as an aspiring jazz musician turned frustrated music teacher. In the fictional version, a struggling musician shocks his friends by becoming a Hollywood composer.

Otto called the book not only Jerry’s voice, but also “his inner psyche. All of the stories, for me, were versions of himself, alone, and his wife.”

The title of the book ostensibly comes from an English proverb, but in the film, Isaac Roseman asks whether it actually reflects a Yiddishism.

“For me, ‘the cup and the lip’ is about the transition of ideas and thoughts from the mind to the mouth. It’s the evolution of narratives, which concern the mind — the kop — as they’re communicated to other people with the lip,” he said, invoking the Yiddish word for “head.”

Otto credits Bob Wittman, the founder of the FBI art crime unit, with additional insight into the short-story collection: “His take on it, which I agree with, is that these stories are a way for Jerry to relive these moments, highlights of his life… relive over and over again and slyly confirm what he did, to do it in a way so cryptic that people didn’t connect the dots when he was alive.”

The director is left with some lingering questions.

“Two retired schoolteachers spent most of their adult lives living off the salary Rita made and off Jerry’s pension,” she said. “The pension would have been pretty small. He was a teacher in New York City for only 15 years. Given all the artwork, artifacts, things that were in their home, they were taking these lavish trips off their salaries, it’s very likely they committed other crimes.”

Sarah Minnich as Rita Alter in ‘The Thief Collector.’ (Courtesy Museum & Crane)

In one of Jerry’s stories, a jealous husband murders an undocumented Mexican immigrant hired to do work on his home, then hides the corpse in his septic tank. Three-fourths of the way into making the film, Otto learned that the Alters had not replaced their septic tank in over 40 years. She started to see this story in a new light.

“A retired couple moves to New Mexico, builds their own home,” Otto recalled of the story’s plot. “Jerry and Rita used undocumented workers to build [their home in New Mexico]. There’s an undocumented worker in the story. And it’s very strange not to change your septic tank for 40-plus years, [not] to have it fixed.

“Rita, towards the end of her life, became increasingly agitated when Ron Roseman told her he wanted to replace the septic tank… Five days after the septic tank was replaced, she died.”

An investigation of the property is carried out in the film.

“We tried our best with the ground-penetrating radar to see if we could find anything,” Otto said. “We didn’t. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it means we didn’t find anything. It further deepens the enigma of Jerry and Rita Alter.”

“Woman-Ochre” will be on display from June 7 through August 28 at The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it has been restored, before its return to the University of Arizona Museum of Art in October.

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