The Art of the Steal

Moneybags Versus Matisse

the art of the steal

By Robert Patrick

Dr. Albert C. Barnes, in his older age, was a stubborn old badger in the eyes of his art world contemporaries. Barnes, to collectors and monolithic money-holders, was an egocentric hoarder of invaluable artwork. This man, to the rest of the world, was clicking his fingers together in selfish pride. Why would someone hold onto such a bountiful collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art when, if properly allocated, the private cache of masterworks could be seen by everyone, all the time?

In director Don Argott’s fascinating documentary, “The Art of the Steal,” Dr. Barnes is portrayed as an idealistic crusader against the exploitation of important artwork. The man’s private inventory was, as speculated by some, totally invaluable. Others, in an attempt to brand a dollar sign onto the paintings, guessed that they fell into the grandiose ballpark of twenty-five billion dollars. Dr. Barnes was married to the idea that these pieces of work, so prevalent to the world’s cultural identity, were to be enjoyed in a small venue, by a select few. The place to see the works of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir and Cezzane was in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, in a unique pillar of education called The Barnes Foundation.

Independent collectors, megalomaniac museums, alleged art historians all tried their hand at prying Barnes’ collection away from the man. The question Argott asks, in a prose that has the demeanor of a detective whodunit, is if the artwork was ever really safe in the first place.

The structure of the documentary, like most of its kind, relies heavily on talking heads. Defensive supporters of Dr.  Albert C. Barnes are shown, more often than not, while the powerful art aficionados and museum heads refuse to be interviewed. The documentary is not really, for the content it holds, unbiased, which is the main problem with the narrative. The lack of equality in coverage makes the whole opus rather one-sided. Some of this can be attributed to the film-crew; some of it can be attributed to the no-shows from Dr. Barnes opposition. Whatever the case may be, we see faces in support of the doctor blip by, mouths racing with word-fueled motors, as they feverishly demonstrate their support of a noble cause in the art world.

The whole escapade, with video-snippets of museum moguls looking sinister as ventriloquist dummies, makes for a pretty entertaining film going experience. Some of these art historians, no matter what side they are on, drop flowery – and sometimes vulgar – quotes like a prizefight between two poet-laureates. Everyone is enraged, embittered, impetuously angry. Watching a documentary with intellects, each of a different value system, throw-out furious words against each other is often hilarious. No one being interviewed is in the least bit impartial.

Because of the electric pacing of the documentary, what could have been redundant flashes of interviewees speaking on repetitious subjects, ends up engaging and interesting. Here, in the hands of a very capable Argott, the story spins like a fantastical thriller.

Who doesn’t like the story of a man, working autonomously, going up against the enormous powers of big business. Dr. Barnes had, from what the quotes and pictures present in the documentary, a temper borrowed straight from George Patton; a face that looked like it was carved out of granite; and the kind of impenetrable strength that looks like it would dent an oncoming Sherman tank. “The Art of the Steal” is great for its wry humor, of course, but it flourishes because of its universal subject matter: man versus machine. Forgive a few minor blemishes, and you’ll enjoy a spectacle of film-making at its finest.

Beneath the unyielding candor of what may have seemed like an elitist old man was, in a legacy that should be preserved, a heart that cared for people, art, history. What a unique documentary about a easily understood feeling.


Now playing at Landmark’s La Jolla Village Cinemas.

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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