The Art of the Steal

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I’m not a fine art guru but I enjoy the works of Basquiat and Cassatt and know the difference between Manet and Monet. On the other hand, I can’t tell the difference between a good Van Gogh and a bad Van Gogh, not like i can tell the difference between a good Scorsese and a bad. The tagline for The Art of the Steal is “The true story of a multi-billion dollar art heist and how they got away with it.” I actually thought I was in for an art robbery film, some big-time cat burglar stuff. Well, within a few minutes I realized this was not even close.

Albert C. Barnes, born in 1872, grew up tough in working class Philadelphia. After a hardscrabble adolescence and a self-financed education at the University of Pennsylvania, he made an outrageous fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. With nothing but time on his hands after selling the company, Barnes dedicated himself to fine art. Not only collecting it, but studying it. Barnes had, what would turn out to be, a spectacular knack for collecting and a keen eye. He gobbled up the very finest examples of post-impressionism and modern art for modest depression era prices.

He gathered up his pieces and displayed them on the walls of a large cottage in a suburb south of Philadelphia. Not your typical gallery, the pieces were arranged with care but in an unorthodox manner. Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet all intermingled happily, arranged not by genre but by size and aesthetic appeal. Barnes, pleased with his collection, invited the who’s who of American art critics and scholars to take a peek. They unanimously dismissed it, claiming the art to be gauche and in poor taste. A bit of a curmudgeon already, Barnes gave a giant middle finger to the rest of the art world from that moment on and shut the doors to his collection to anyone but students and invitees.

Well, years went by, art tastes changed and before you knew it, Barnes had what everyone else wanted. He had the best, and, remembering the initial snub, kept everyone out. And seriously, good for him. It was his art, he could do whatever he wanted with it. Inside the gallery doors, developed a burgeoning culture of education and appreciation. Matisse is quoted as saying The Barnes “is the only sane place in America to see art.”

Inevitably, Barnes passes away and the real fight begins. Working with the best lawyers in the country, Barnes, before his death, saw to it that his will be a Fort Knox to his paintings. An army of lawyers did their damn best to make sure not one of those pieces of art ever saw the wall of a museum. The Barnes foundation would remain a place of education.

When dealing with literally billions of dollars worth of paintings, you could lock it away in a room with steel doors a hundred feet thick, surrounded by a moat infested with laser-beam equipped sharks and some dirty politician or museum curator will eventually get their hands on it. And therein lies the rub and the fulcrum on which The Art of The Steal teeters.

I won’t give anything away, but to say the least, I was gutted by the willingness of everyone involved to obfuscate a man’s will. The soundtrack is pitch perfect, dabbling mostly in old Phillip Glass pieces. I was pleasantly surprised when a bit of Rachel’s, A French Galleasse, popped up. The pacing of the documentary is never slack, it feels right.

It’s not a story about the meaning of art. It’s about control. Barnes spent his life teaching and admiring. He did everything in his power to see that continue after his death. The City of Philadelphia, among others did everything in their power to undress the culture of appreciation Barnes allowed to flourish. The lesson learned goes something like this: If you have 25 billion+ in art that you don’t want plundered away, you have two choices. 1. Dont die or 2. Make sure you have loads of kids.

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