How can a documentary be so engaging that you watch it over and over and over. That’s right a documentary that I have seen not just once or twice but three times. The Art of Steal by Don Argott plays like a debriefing of a major heist. Interspersed with interviews from people who knew Dr. Albert Barnes personally or were associated with the “friends of the Barnes foundation” and also newspaper clippings and interviews with people who are essentially the bad-guys in this movie.
If it is a heist movie then there has to be a priceless treasure at the heart of it. And here we are talking of a private collection of post-impressionist and modern art which is conservatively estimated at 25-35 billion and might even touch a 100 billion mark if art like that was ever to hit the market. It consists the who’s who of the greatest artists including Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Renoirs, Cezanne’s, Picassos, Monet’s and Manets. Art that is not just staggering in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality in that it includes some of the best example of the artist’s work, for instance it includes Cezanne’s Card players featuring 5 subjects as opposed to the Cezanne’s Card Player which is currently the most expensive painting at 259-300 million featuring 2 subjects.
The documentary does not try to strike a balance in terms of portraying both sides of the story. It is an out and out vilification of the people who disregarded Dr. Barnes wishes and moved the collection out of its original house. But I don’t have a problem with that. Imagine if you will that you are a very rich and successful chemist who has developed an antiseptic drug Argyrol to treat gonorrhea and made a fortune from selling your company in your 30s. you then go on to study art and actively collect artists who are not that famous yet and also picking up famous post-impressionist masterpieces before those names became being taken in the same breath as Da Vinci and other masters. Imagine that you lovingly put your art on display not in the setting of a museum but more like how it would in a home, putting pictures together because of their visual style rather than just the artist’s name. Imagine that you explicitly put it in your will that the art is to be forever displayed in the same way to students who want to learn from the masters. Imagine that after you died greedy rich fat-cats want to lay their dirty hands on your priceless treasure to rip it off the walls you so lovingly adorned to be displayed in the stark soulless confines of museums which will also play hosts to the same rich fat-cats’ dinner galas. I’d be pretty darn pissed would you? So what if I was a nutcase and didn’t like the society folks of Philadelphia? It is still my art and my wish and my will which has been violated. There can simply be no justification. The argument that had it not been done the public would have been deprived of the art is ridiculous and blasted to smithereens by the fact that Dr Barnes always allowed a limited number of visitors to come in to view the display and spend as much time as they wished.
Some of the interviewees who speak so passionately about the power of the art and eye with which Barnes put the collection together you are moved yourself. This is a fascinating documentary which covers nearly all the aspects of the decades long legal struggle of trying to return the Barnes collection to its original home in Lower Merion Pennsylvania.
If you’ve never seen any documentary then might I recommend you start with this one? While some documentary subject matters are very hard to palate this plays out more like a thriller. This is an exciting and fascinating look at an art theft which is perhaps second only to what Hitler perpetrated at the beginning of the Second World War.
As a side note, on my recent visit to USA , I was thrilled to bits to be visiting Philadelphia and wanted to watch the Barnes collection at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as much as I hated the people who put the collection there I wanted to see in person the art that was at the center of the entire debate, but turns out the only wish of Dr. Barnes that they have adhered to is to limit the number of visitors and I was not allowed inside despite several requests and pleas that I had a flight to catch back to India the next day.