The Art of the Steal
Along with Facing Ali, Don Argott’s searing art-world polemic The Art of the Steal was the most underrated documentary of 2009. The film tells a story familiar in Pennsylvania but little known otherwise: the attempts by politicians and the Philadelphia art-ocracy to violate the trust of deceased art collector Albert Barnes and seize his collection. A wealthy chemist who liquidated his company before the 1929 crash, Barnes became the leading American collector of impressionist art, amassing work by Cézanne and Matisse long before the mainstream caught up. Instead of exhibiting his invaluable works, Barnes housed them in a private school/homey art shrine in Merion with heavily restricted public access. Fast-forward 50 years, and Barnes’ collection is worth a mouth-watering $25 billion, with an under-funded black college, The Philadelphia Inquirer publishers and The Pew Charitable Trusts all hungry for a slice.