Film examines battle over prize U.S. art collection

Tue Apr 6, 2010 11:55am EDT
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - That a bitter battle broke out over the Barnes collection full of paintings by Renoir, Picasso and Van Gogh is hardly surprising. Up to $25 billion worth of rare works of art was at stake.

A new documentary tells the story of a legal tussle for control of the huge collection, which ended in a head-to-head between those who wanted it to stay in its original home in a small Pennsylvania suburb and those who lobbied for its transfer to downtown Philadelphia.

The latter group won, and one of the world's greatest impressionist and post-impressionist art collections boasting 181 Renoirs, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses 46 Picassos among others, is expected to move from the former estate of its founder Albert Barnes to a newly built home in 2012.

But the makers of "The Art of the Steal" clearly sided with the losers in an impassioned, if partisan criticism of what they and contributors described as "cultural vandalism," "a circus" and "a big, big scandal."

"All they're talking about is the dollar signs -- they're not talking about Renoir and Picasso in any kind of deep way," said director Don Argott, picking up on a theme that runs throughout the film.

His main argument is that trustees of the Barnes Foundation have trampled over the wishes of founder Barnes, who built it up in the early 1900s and envisaged it chiefly as an educational institution.

After his death in 1951, control of the foundation went to Lincoln University, and The Art of the Steal seeks to show how control was gradually wrested away by vested interests.

"It's not about art, it's about money. That's all it's about," Argott added in a telephone interview.   Continued...