Conjure an art thief in your head, and you probably have in mind someone who’s working on commission or attempting to get rich quick—a pilferer in cahoots with a crime syndicate, say, or a looter with plans to sell the work they stole on the black market. But what happens when the thief just wants the art for themselves? This is the question that animates The Thief Collector, an entertaining and mysterious documentary by Allison Otto that premiered by the South by Southwest film festival this past weekend. The film proposes that there are art thieves out there who are not just in it for the money. When those people steal art, they’re doing so, rather perversely, out of love—sort of, anyway.
The focus of The Thief Collector is one of art history’s stranger heists: the theft of a Willem de Kooning painting from the University of Arizona’s art museum in Tucson in 1985. On a sleepy day after Thanksgiving that year, a man and a woman cut the de Kooning out of its frame, rolled up the canvas, and hurriedly left the museum with it. The painting was worth $400,000 at the time; it’s now valued at around $160 million. No one chased after the thieves as they exited the museum with the painting in hand, nor as they drove away with it in their red Toyota Supra. Two years later, with no solid leads, the FBI put it on its list of most wanted stolen artworks.
A surprising end to the case arrived in 2017, when workers from Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiquities arrived at the remote Arizona home of the recently deceased Rita Adler to value her estate. In the bedroom, behind the door to its entryway, was none other than de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955). There was even a screw near the floor to ensure that the door didn’t hit the painting when the door was opened. “Truthfully, it was one of the ugliest paintings I’d ever seen in my life,” muses Rick Johnson, of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiquities, in Otto’s film.
Experts would disagree, though the art-historical standing of the painting is largely not the focus of this documentary. The painting is from de Kooning’s famed “Woman” series, Abstract Expressionist images of female nudes with bulging breasts and bodies that dissolve into an array of brushy strokes. (Some feminist critics have pointed to these paintings as an example of male Abstract Expressionists’ misogynistic tendencies for their violent portrayals of women.) Similar—and, it must be said, more significant—works from the series are held by the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum. The “Woman” paintings are considered shining examples of postwar abstraction and perhaps even the most famous works de Kooning ever produced.
And so it is with pain that viewers will learn in Otto’s documentary that Adler and her husband Jerry, who died in 2012, had damaged the painting when they rolled it up and stapled it into a new frame. The Adlers apparently also touched up some of the more distressed areas with their own paint. Someone had even put a layer of varnish on it, a practice that restorers now don’t use because it can damage the paint beneath it. “It feels like a faint echo of what would’ve been done in a professional job,” says Laura Rivers, a conservator at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles who painstakingly restored Woman-Ochre upon its discovery in 2017.
Mark Stevens, who with Analynn Swan wrote the definitive de Kooning biography in 2004 and won a Pulitzer Prize for it, puts a finer point on it: “Putting your own stupid paint on it? I mean, if you’re untrained? My God, who would do such a thing.”
Otto’s documentary plunges into Rivers’s question headfirst, asking what possessed the Adlers, who are routinely described in the film as “nice” people by their friends, to steal. To those who knew them, the Adlers were not exactly thrill-seekers. They traveled the world and returned with various trinkets to prove it. They regularly hosted people in their home and lived what appeared to be middle-class lives. But the de Kooning heist leaves open the possibility that they weren’t who they presented themselves to be.
In Otto’s reading, the Adlers’ heist of the de Kooning was a form of fantasy fulfillment. As if to underline that, she casts deliberately schlocky reenactments of the heist with footage from the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, in which Pierce Brosnan plays a billionaire who steals a Monet from the Met. That film is fictional, and so too are Otto’s reenactments, which are camped up in such a way as to underline their artifice. Special attention is paid to Jerry’s moustache, which she notes was fake at the time of the heist. In Otto’s hands, it looks positively plasticky. You wonder how his obvious disguise didn’t give him away.
Sometimes, Otto falls too hard for the delusions of grandeur put forward by the Adlers, in particular Jerry, who wrote thinly veiled versions of his escapades in a book called The Cup and the Lip. The prose was hokum, but the details were there: he fictionalized the de Kooning heist as a jewelry theft. Periodically, Otto features reenactments of some of his stories, including one where Rita has sex with a Latino gardener, causing Jerry to murder him and throw him into the house’s sanitation system, which was never emptied at the Adlers’ request. The icky racial politics of this act and its probable fictionalization aren’t explored, but Otto does spend a lot of time wondering whether any murder ever took place, since other aspects of The Cup and the Lip proved true. She brings on a sanitation company to investigate, but she comes up without any solid evidence.
Which brings us back to the de Kooning heist. Beside that theft, the Adlers don’t appear to have been criminals. So what possessed them to steal a painting worth millions and to then hold on to it? A clue may come courtesy of conjecture by their nephew, who describes the Adlers’ thinking as thus: “If I can’t be famous, at least I can be infamous.”