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The Art of The Steal

The value of the Barnes Collection is incalculable. The largest single collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art, it includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis and seven van Goghs. A recent evaluation put it at $25 billion, but that’s a number meaningful only to an auction house.

But there is another way to value it, as the potential income stream it could generate in the possession of a public museum. That is exactly what Dr. Albert C. Barnes did not want. In particular, he did not want it to go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Which, as of 2012, is exactly where it will be. Barnes, a physician of working-class origins who amassed a fortune in the early part of the 20th century by patenting a treatment for venereal disease, developed a taste for new art at a time when it was looked down on by the cultural establishment. As he selectively amassed his collection, he developed a concurrent loathing for the old guard of Philadelphia who looked down their noses at him. He lived long enough to see tastes catch up with him, and housed his paintings and other art objects in a building in a Philadelphia suburb. Designated as an educational institution, the collection was not open to the public in the manner of a museum, though visiting was no harder than making reservations at a restaurant. Determined to keep his collection safe for those who truly appreciated it and outside of the stream of “cultural tourism,” he hired the best lawyers to draw-up an ironclad will to maintain its location. It will have taken just about 60 years for the terms of that will to be voided.

Energetically directed by Don Argott, The Art of the Steal does not pretend to be an objective documentary. It is on the side of those who feel that Barnes’ will should be respected, that the relocation of the collection to the Philadelphia Museum is an act of blatant theft that is turning paintings of enormous value into commodities.

Argott has no lack of experts, critics, and commentators to appear on camera, and their impassioned arguments give this film a lot of its power. It is perhaps not surprising that those who fought to have the collection moved refused to be interviewed, because the film opens lines of argument that could be more fruitfully addressed: Can art be “owned” in perpetuity? Does the increased public stature of an artist and his work make him public property? For that matter, is revenge wise public policy? Even if it leaves those questions for viewers to answer, The Art of the Steal is one of the most provocative documentaries of recent years.

m. faust

Watch the trailer for The Art of The Steal

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