'Art of the Steal' Don't let the word 'documentary' scare you away

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dr.Albert Barnes had a good eye for art. Actually, he had a ridiculously good eye for art. In the early 1900s Barnes very quickly acquired what would become the world's foremost collection of post-impressionist and early modern art. Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne and many other big names were well represented in Barnes' collection, which eventually became worth more than 25 billion dollars. Barnes himself soon became so disillusioned with the Philadelphia elite - namely the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Inquirer - that he made it his mission to bar them from ever getting their hands on his collection.

When he died in a car wreck in 1951, however, it was only a matter of time before his enemies would figure out a way to steal the Barnes collection.

That is the story of "The Art of the Steal." The best part? It is all true.

Normally, I have to be dragged to documentaries (or tricked into watching them). However, when the mainstream new offerings are "Kick-Ass" and "Death at a Funeral," documentaries gain instant appeal. Throw in the location of "The Art of the Steal" - the Gold Town Nickelodeon - and all of a sudden "documentary" is becoming a downright beautiful word.

How filmmaker Don Argott got wind of the story of the Barnes collection, I have no idea. I do not doubt the fact I would have gone to my grave having never heard of Albert Barnes, though, if not for this documentary. On that front alone, I feel like I should write Argott a thank-you note. It is a story that covers decades and spans entire lifetimes of some of its characters. The amount of money involved is staggering. "The Art of the Steal" goes so far as to openly suggest well-known entities like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the PEW Charitable Trusts are heavily involved in a conspiracy to essentially steal Barnes' 25 billion dollar collection.

Most amazing of all, of course, is the fact that Argott seems to have hard evidence of that conspiracy.

Argott uses testimonials and narration from the folks involved with the story, ranging from Julian Bond to Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell, as well as recordings from sources like National Public Radio. By the way, should you ever be asked if you would agree to be interviewed for a documentary, just know there is no quicker way to label yourself "guilty" than to decline that invite. Argott keeps the audience guessing, and keeps the movie interesting. There is also never a single shred of doubt as to how Argott himself feels about the two sides of the story; he is only concerned with the side he is telling, and that is just fine with me.

It is a documentary that is interesting from start to finish! That is no easy feat. So Argott is forgiven, at least in my book, for making zero effort to approach his story's central issue with any sense of fairness.

Dr. Barnes was clear about his disdain for the "elite" of Philadelphia, just as Argott is clear about which side he comes down on.

The layers of irony are many in "The Art of the Steal." The distance between Philadelphia and Merion, where Barnes originally housed his collection, for example. This epic fight between Barnes from his grave and the super-powerful Philadelphia elite is over a distance of less than 10 miles.

If you agree with Argott, though, and the various folks that consider themselves to be on Barnes' side, it is about principles and morals. You will have to decide for yourself.

• Check out Carson's movie blog at www.juneaublogger.com/movies.

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