Thursday, February 25, 2010

Stealing Art Often a Battle of Wills

The Art of the Steal

Despite its growing popularity over the last ten years, it is still tough to convince people to watch documentaries. Unless they are nominated for Academy Awards, the majority of the population will not go out of their way to find theatres that offer documentary films. Hopefully this will change soon as there are a bunch of great docs that are being released these days. One example of this is The Art of the Steal which opens at the IFC Center in the United States this weekend. While expansion information has not been released yet, chances are good that most will either be able to see it at local independent cinemas, or on DVD, in the coming months.

Dr. Albert Barnes held the largest collection of post-impressionist and early modernist art in the world. Despite the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s best efforts to acquire the pieces, Barnes snubbed the museum and Philadelphia’s downtown elite and housed the collection in suburb of Merion. Barnes wanted the collection to remain an educational tool for serious students of art and not the casual tourist. Before his death in 1951, Barnes made a Will to ensure that the collection stayed out of the hands of the Museum and others who wished to profit from it. While Barnes was able to hold off the dollar hungry vultures when he was alive, things drastically changed once he passed away. The Art of the Steal reveals that even iron clad Wills, such as Barnes’, can start to show cracks if the right amount of pressure is applied.

Don Argott’s documentary was easily one of my favourite films at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The story unfolds like a murder mystery complete with a full list of suspects. Argott details, step by step, how money rules the bottom line of everything. Profit is the catalyst that forced many Philadelphian politicians, and corporations, to team up in order to orchestrate, what Argott views as, the greatest heist in recent year.

The Art of the Steal questions what say do any of us really have in our lives? If something as strong as a person’s last Will and Testament can be violated at all levels, what hope is there for any of us? The most startling aspect of this documentary is how matter-of-fact some people, such as the Governor and the Attorney General, are when discussion how they blackmailed institutions, such as Lincon University, to give up their shares of the Barnes Foundation. The chilling thing about the revelation is the fact that both men act like it was just business as usual.

The stealing of the Barnes collection was as epic as major corporate mergers. Many of the players involved not only hide key information from the public, but also used public money to commit the crime. It is truly fascinating to see how the Barnes’ collection has ended up becoming everything Barnes objected to when he was alive. The Art of the Steal will make you look at art, politics, education, and the law in a whole new light. Keep an eye out for this in your local theatres and/or video stores. It is one of the year’s best films.


  1. Sounds very interesting that, I enjoyed your write-up. I've added it to my DVD queue (I doubt it will ever see a cinema over here) and I'll keep my fingers crossed it ends up getting released.

  2. @Thistime - Even on DVD the film is still worth a look. It will add a whole new dimension to how you view museums and the art world in general.

  3. Dude, I really want to see this. Saw the trailer for it at An Education the other week, sounds like one hell of a story. Good enthusiastic review, can't wait to check it out.


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