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Review: ‘The Art of the Steal’

Documentary About the Barnes Collection

Above: Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his art collection are at the heart of "The Art of the Steal"

If recent thrillers like “Green Zone” left you bored and wondering where all the tension was then try the new documentary “The Art of the Steal” (opening March 26 at Landmark’s La Jolla Village theaters).

Although not as dramatic and powerful as last year’s “The Cove,” “The Art of the Steal” does develop a narrative worthy of thrilling fiction. The story for “The Art of the Steal” begins back in 1922. That was when Dr. Albert C. Barnes created The Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. Over the years, Barnes had amassed a breathtaking collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art: some181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs. Barnes’ intent was to place these works in a private institution of his creation and that the works would be for educational purposes. The art work was carefully displayed in intimate rooms designed to showcase a mix of artists and media.

Barnes deliberately built his Foundation away from Philadelphia and the cultural elite that had initially criticized his collection as "horrible, debased art." Barnes despised these elite snobs and adamantly insisted that they never get their hands on his collection. He spelled this out as clearly as he legally could in his will but since he had no children, he did not have any heirs to speak for him after he died and to defend his intentions.

For a number of years, there were people dedicated to keeping to the spirit of Barnes’ will. But as the established art world -- that had once scoffed at the works in Barnes’ collection -- began to covet those works, the battle over the Barnes collection began in earnest and mostly behind closed doors. When Barnes died in 1951, he left control of his collection to Lincoln University, a small African-American college. The strict instructions stated that the paintings may never be removed from the Foundation. But the art work – valued at some $25 billion dollars – has proven too much of a temptation. So some powerful and moneyed people and organizations have set their sights on pilfering the Barnes collection, and have engaged in what the film depicts as an almost Machiavellian plot to steal the art.

"The Art of the Steal"

IFC

Above: "The Art of the Steal"

Director Don Argott weaves a chilling and intricate tale of art, intrigue, and rancorous legal battles. The story will enrage you, bewilder you, and occasionally even amuse you with its absurdity. The film’s shortcomings are that it is only able to interview people on one side of the issue, and that there is limited archival footage to draw on (so what little there is gets endlessly repeated). Left with mostly talking heads, Argott relies on the compelling nature of the story being told to pull viewers in and hold them rapt. And the story of what has happened to the Barnes Foundation and its art work is indeed a fascinating saga.

“The Art of The Steal” (unrated) is a riveting tale. Argott gathers some articulate people to weave this complicated story together. Too bad he couldn’t find more visual elements to use and something beyond the talking head format to employ. Although I was vaguely familiar with the dispute over the Barnes Collection (I had heard some NPR coverage), I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the court decisions and last minute maneuverings. This film pairs well with “The Rape of Europa,” a documentary that chronicled the theft, destruction yet ultimate survival of Europe's art treasures during the Third Reich and the Second World War.

Companion viewing: “The Rape of Europa,” “Vincent and Theo,” “Once a Thief”

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