Directed: Don Argott
February 26, 2010
Running time 101 minutes

I spent my first 18 years in Philadelphia and never once heard mention of the Barnes Foundation. Never once heard that across the city in Merion, PA a foundation was sitting on what is now estimated to be a 35 billion dollar collection of art. The collection has 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses and 46 Picassos just for starters. The magnitude of its holdings speaks to the primary dilemma expressed in the movie. Situated in a residential neighborhood, most of the world has been excluded from viewing these works. There is no parking, for instance. The two times we saw it, we went by public transportation and walked the last few blocks.

PLOT: Dr. Albert Barnes came from humble beginnings but discovered a treatment for venereal disease and made a fortune with it. Then he discovered French art and collected it before most of the world saw its value. His is a complicated story and THE ART OF THE STEAL makes no pretense at giving us an even-handed look. The film come down clearly on the side of Dr. Albert Barnes’ final will, which decreed that the art should remain in this small museum, should never be toured, sold, moved around within the museum (he had very specific ideas on how it should be presented) or even seen by very many people. He attached a small art school to the collection and declared it would be available mostly to the students. Yes, it was his collection, but his pique at what he felt was mistreatment by the Philadelphia art establishment and the powers that be led him to make an almost ironclad will not allowing very little access to the work.

Eventually the art fell into the hands of a small university (Lincoln) which had no means to maintain the art and both the building and any resolve to maintain the dictate of the will began to come undone. Lined up against Barnes’ remaining devotees was the Philadelphia Art Institute, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Annenberg Foundation, the governor, the mayor—everyone with influence.

The documentary would have us believe that this was a bad thing. That Albert Barnes was the most important person to consider in all of this. That even sixty years after his death, we should honor his persnickety attempt to keep it to himself. And I am sure a lot of people are convinced that finders are keepers.

But is it really wrong for the city of Philadelphia and its benefactors to build a new museum to hold the collection? To make it available to more people—to protect it in a building that has 21st century environmental and safety precautions. The movie insists that all of these intentions are crass-about increasing tourism in Philadelphia, about stealing the collection. But a case can also be made that Barnes himself stole the collection by hiding it away for almost a century. Does one man have the right to deprive the public from these masterpieces out of pique? I don’t think so.


Patti Abbott writes crime fiction short stories. She hosts a look at Forgotten Books every Friday with readers, writers and reviewers at She hopes you’ll join in.