Non-Profit Doc Recounts Battle over Billion-Dollar Art Collection
Starting in the early 20th Century, Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) began quietly amassing a priceless art collection which included hundreds of pieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and other emerging masters at a time well before they became household names in the United States. This enterprising art enthusiast purchased their unappreciated works for a relative pittance during visits to Europe underwritten with money made from a patent he developed for preventing gonorrhea blindness in newborns.
In 1922, he opened the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia, an unpretentious museum/school designed with aspiring young artists and working-class patrons in mind, two groups then generally shunned by the elitist art world. In fact, Barnes himself was dismissed as a dilettante with bad taste by the critics, a snub he would never forget or forgive.
However, the art establishment would belatedly acknowledge Dr. Barnes’ uncanny eye for treasures, and come to covet his collection, when its value grew to over $25 billion. Still, at the end of his life, he would leave his estate to Lincoln University, an unheralded historically black college, instead of passing it on to a mainstream institution likely to turn his unpretentious all-embracing oasis of tolerance into an exclusive enclave.
This bequest ignited a firestorm of controversy, as powerful politicians and mainstream museum directors immediately started scheming to wrest control of the Barnes from the little black college which had been named the beneficiary of its founder’s will. That protracted legal battle is the subject of The Art of the Steal, a fascinating documentary recounting how a combination of racism, arrogance and shady shenanigans enabled a group of entitled crooks in philanthropists’ clothing to pull off a billion-dollar heist, thereby frustrating the last wishes of a true champion of the people.
A tragic, true tale exposing America’s ugly, two-tiered system of justice defined by the color line.
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 101 minutes
Studio: IFC Films/MPI Home Video
DVD Extras: Theatrical trailer.
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