“Law enforcement cases rarely end the way they start…You go the way the evidence takes you.”

The documentary, The Thief Collector does just that. It begins by explaining that a couple from an antique store was asked to go through a recently deceased uncle’s house. They found some nice things, good for an estate sale, charities, etc. Then they see the painting: Willem de Kooning’s 1955 oil painting “Woman-Ochre.” It was stolen in 1985 from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, making it one of the top 10 art crime thefts, valued at $400,000 at the time of its theft. When the couple reported to the authorities what they found, and it was looked over, it was determined it is genuine and actually worth over $160 million today.

The documentary continues to go over the next 90 minutes sharing how the uncle and aunt stole the painting and their secret life with re-enactments which led to the discovery of a book written by the uncle that was basically his deepest, darkest confessions. In the beginning, it shares from experts explaining the different types of thieves. The thief collector is the darkest of these types. They feel as if they are victims and are denied something that means so much to them.

“They feel like since they care about it, they should keep it for themselves.”

Bob Wittman, Founder of FBI National Art Crime Team

The documentary looks at how the lives of those who crossed the painting took shape. Not just the antique shop owners or the family whose relatives stole the painting. They show the rookie cop in 1985 wanting to finish the case before his retirement when the painting was found. I spoke with the director, Allison Otto, about her funny, sweet, and wild documentary.

Without giving spoilers, did you have any idea where this story was going?

Otto: I knew about the book written by Jerry, the uncle. I read it before filming and saw some parallels that just can’t be a coincidence. So I had some idea of what I was getting myself into.

(These parallels included:

> A married couple pretending to be French and scouting museums and art galleries

There was proof that Jerry and his wife went traveling and visiting said places in real life

> A body being put in a septic tank for a murder

Jerry had a septic tank in his home in New Mexico.)

I really liked that you show the fun and loving side of the couple but also their selfishness and criminal mindsets. You also show the nice aspects of the family and the men who found the painting be selfless and helpful, not wanting to exploit or cash in on the crime.

Otto: You are one of the first persons to mention the humanity I tried to show and the different faces of the people who crossed paths with the painting.

(For instance, the antique store couple were very generous, the nephew was well-meaning but Jerry and his wife had a dark side and stole the painting.)

“The crime itself is the tip of the iceberg but the story is the psyche of all the different people that came into contact with this painting.”

Allison Otto, Director

I recommend watching this documentary and seeing for yourself how this painting brought out people’s inner selves and inner desires. And who knows, it might make you think, how would I react? Like the antique store couple? Or like the couple that turned out to be the thieves?

Find their screening and more info here: https://www.filmrise-screenings.com/the-thief-collector

Watch the trailer:

*Images from Filmerise Screenings’ The Thief Collector webpage