April 6, 2010 / 3:58 PM / 9 years ago

Film examines battle over prize U.S. art collection

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.

“MISSTATEMENTS AND INNUENDO” Greater public access and special “blockbuster” exhibitions from the collection could generate considerable funds, and Argott feared the move from the Merion location could lead to more radical steps to raise cash in the future.

“It doesn’t seem that far fetched to go from moving it to the (Benjamin Franklin) Parkway to the point where people forget about that and say ‘We’re having financial problems — what if we traded some of the paintings?’,” he said.

A statement from the Barnes Foundation, however, has criticized the movie for being “built upon a series of misstatements of fact and innuendo.”

Trustees said the foundation’s finances “were in shambles” by 1998 and that opposition from Merion residents to open the galleries to more visitors was threatening their very existence.

Visitors to the galleries and arboretum must reserve tickets in advance, and the rooms are open for only four days a week from September to May and five days from June to September.

Argott estimated the cost of the move to Philadelphia at $200-300 million, a figure that dwarfed the running costs at the current home which he put at $1.5-2.0 million a year.

Even if those financing the new site were not willing to support the gallery, he added, the foundation could have raised cash through a bond that would secure its long-term future.

“If there was a real will and a desire to make this thing work they could make it work and that’s what it all boils down to,” he said.

“Philadelphia, you would think, would be much more concerned about preserving the past, but it is at the forefront of destroying a cultural institution for no good reason other than to make money on the back of it.”

The Art of the Steal won generally warm reviews when it was released in the United States earlier this year, and Argott said he was looking to have it shown in cinemas in Europe soon.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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