The Art of the Steal -- Film Review

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For a movie about bureaucratic and political machinations in the art world, the new documentary "The Art of the Steal" is far more enthralling than it has a right to be. This account of the complex battle for the treasures of the Barnes Foundation, located in a suburb of Philadelphia, becomes a thriller and a complex morality tale that should appeal to far more than just art aficionados. Recently showcased at the New York Film Festival, Don Argott's film will be released theatrically via IFC's Sundance Selects imprint next year.

As it relates in great detail, the foundation was founded in 1922 by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a self-made millionaire who made his fortune via, among other things, a quick and easy pharmaceutical cure for venereal disease.

He also was a rabid art lover and prodigious collector, amassing a collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art that is universally acknowledged to be the most important private cache ever assembled, estimated at a value of about $25 billion. He built a mansion in Lower Merion, Pa., to house it, intending for it to be a permanent educational institution rather than a museum for the masses.

His plan well succeeded until his death in a car accident in 1951. Having long derided the Philadelphia social establishment that held him in anathema, he left control of his collection to the little-known Lincoln University, a small African-American college, and left strict instructions in his will that the paintings could never be removed, even temporarily, from their home and that they never be exploited for commercial purposes.

When his heir apparent also died several decades later, the foundation's financial situation eventually spiraled out of control, leading to a series of various legal battles, most notably with the city of Philadelphia, which coveted the holdings for its own proposed new museum with the purpose of making it a cultural tourist destination site.

Using a well-chosen mixture of haunting archival footage and a series of impassioned interviews with many of those directly or peripherally involved in the battle, the film makes many important points about private vs. public rights and the aesthetics involved in the presentation of art. If this all sounds dry, it's not. Given the proper marketing and careful handling, "Art" could well avoid the sad B.O. results recently suffered by so many theatrically released documentaries.

Venue: New York Film Festival (Sundance Selects)
Production: 9.14 Pictures, MAJ Prods.
Director-cinematographer: Don Argott
Producer: Sheena M. Joyce
Executive producer: Lenny Feinberg
Editor: Demian Fenton
Music: West Dylan Thordson
No rating, 101 minutes
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