It was a brazen case of daylight robbery. In 1985, a couple walked into an art gallery on the campus of the University of Arizona and left 15 minutes later with a rolled-up Willem de Kooning shoved up the man’s jacket. In 2017, the painting was finally recovered – not by the FBI, but by a trio of house clearance guys in New Mexico. It had been hanging for 30 years on the bedroom wall of retired teachers Rita and Jerry Alter.
How an ordinary couple like the Alters pulled off one of the biggest art heists of the 20th century is told in this mostly entertaining documentary. You can imagine the story being turned into a podcast and it’s perhaps stretched a little thin for a full-length documentary. (Did we really need an interview with the couple’s nephew’s son?) The weak link is the film’s dramatisation of the theft: a tongue-in-cheek pastiche that feels a bit glib as questions about the Alters’ motivations deepen and darken. Still, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into the mystery of other people, especially other people’s marriages. Friends and family still look dazed that the Alters – Rita and Jerry! – were behind the theft.
The unlikely heroes of the story are a trio of honest-as-they-come house clearance men who bought the De Kooning along with the contents of Jerry and Rita’s house after they died. When a customer offered them $200,000 for the painting, they did a bit of Googling; after realising it could be the missing artwork (Woman-Ochre, now worth around $160m), they were straight on the phone to the gallery in Arizona to return it, with no question of making a dime for themselves.
The three men are brilliant interviewees, warm and thoroughly decent; their experience in rooting through other people’s homes and lives has clearly given them the kind of insight that would make them great detectives, too. And if nothing else, this documentary ought to give someone working in television the idea of making a detective series about house clearance experts.
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