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Dr. Albert Barnes’s legacy is torn to shreds in gripping documentary

Dr. Albert Barnes’s legacy is torn to shreds in gripping documentary

THE ART OF THE STEAL (Don Argott, 2009)
IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave. at Third St.
Opens Friday, February 26

Director Don Argott details a very different kind of art theft in the gripping documentary THE ART OF THE STEAL. But in this case, it’s not a famous painting that disappears from a museum in the middle of the night but an entire collection, as well as a man’s legacy, absconded with in full view of the art world. In 1922, Dr. Albert C. Barnes established the Barnes Foundation, displaying his remarkable collection of post-Impressionism art in an arboretum in Merion, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. His goal was to share his magnificent works — including a stunning array of paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Seurat, and Van Gogh — with bona fide art lovers and students, setting up a school and denying access to the general public, the mass media, and the rich and powerful. He adamantly refused to let any single piece ever be loaned, sold, or moved, outlining the demand very specifically in his will. After his death in 1951, Violette de Mazia continued to carry out his wishes as the Arboretum School expanded, but when she died in 1988, the trust was put in the hands of small Lincoln University and suddenly the Barnes Foundation, which had treasured its privacy, was put into play as politicians, charities, collectors such as the Annenbergs, the press, and the public at large descended on the Barnes like vultures, everyone wanting a piece of the action. Argott follows the money with archival footage and photographs and new interviews with many of those involved on both sides of the caper — although several of the more prominent “thieves” refused to participate. THE ART OF THE STEAL is a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the ritzy art world, a must-see for art lovers who get to peek behind the scenes of a multibillion-dollar heist going on in plain sight.

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