The Barnes art collection, located in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, houses "the most important and valuable collection of Post-Impressionist and Early Modern Art in the world." In the documentary The Art of the Steal, an expert is asked what the collection is worth, and all he can do is shake his head. Others do put a rough price on it: $25 billion. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceuticals millionaire who assembled the collection, put it on display at his educational art institution, the Barnes Foundation, and when he died, left specific instructions that it was not to be moved, lent, or disturbed in any way--both to ensure his own legacy, and as a poke in the eye to the Philadelphia art elite. But they got his collection anyway. The Art of the Steal is the story of how they pulled off the greatest art heist in history, and did it in broad daylight.
At least, that's the point of view of the film, and it's probably the correct one. Barnes specifically designed his gallery as a small, intimate, personal experience, and seemed to revel in his ability to let in and keep out whoever the hell he wanted. He had a specific axe to grind with Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg, whom he saw as a figurehead of the rich "art patron" who doesn't actually know or care a whit about art. When Barnes died in 1951, he made clear his wishes that the collection stay exactly as it was, but, as one former teacher at the Foundation notes, "Once everybody's dead, they'll do what they want."
The Art of the Steal is not some dry tract on art politics; it's a tale of intrigue, of political dealings, of age-old grudges held and squeezed. Director Don Argott walks through the complex troubles and controversies of the half-century following Barnes's death--the hints at financial insolvency, the chipping away at the will by relentless self-promoter Richard H. Glaston ("I brought the Barnes out of the dark ages"), the uproar over an aborted plan to sell some of the work, the controversial tour of part of the collection. But then a zoning dispute with the neighbors turns into a civil rights lawsuit (seriously), and just when things seem to be going right down the toilet... the politicians get involved.
Director Argott is an adroit documentarian, and he wisely keeps the picture moving at a breakneck pace--the interviews are seen in tight snatches of conversation, the political intrigue is fully amped throughout, and the plethora of music cues are mostly well-employed (though no documentary should lift cues from Philip Glass's Thin Blue Line score and not expect it to distract the doc fans in the audience; it's like another sports movie using the Rocky theme). He uses some clever editing tricks--when the story jumps back to '95, we see a high-speed rewind through the last chunk of the film--and ribbing wit, as when art reporter David D'Arcy calls Philly financier Ray Perelman "a nasty old man," then adds, "Spell my name right and make sure he knows that I'm the one that said it." Argott obligingly puts his super back up on screen.
Argott is also, unquestionably, an advocate; he lines up early on the side of the "Friends of the Barnes" and doesn't waver. In these Moore-infused times, the question of the objective documentary is one that's all but unanswerable, and hey, I'm no purist. But there are points at which it feels as though Argott is stacking the deck--after all, if you're on the right side of an issue, why not let those who are wrong be heard? There are, after all, real questions to be asked about who "owns" art, and who has the "right" to see it; are we supposed to cheer Barnes for amassing this tremendous collection and then proudly, spitefully keeping it away from the general public? (The collection didn't become available for viewing by non-students until 1961, and then only a couple of days a week, by appointment.) The film affords plenty of screen time for the self-proclaimed arbiters of art, but seems almost afraid to let anyone ask the simple question: shouldn't people be able to see this collection? (The closest it gets is Philly mayor turned Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who despairs that the collection is "being hidden away from the world.") Yes, these were Barnes's wishes, but was he right? Probably. But it's not quite as black-and-white as is portrayed here.
The 1.78:1 image is mostly clean but not terribly exciting. Archival materials are expectedly hit-and-miss, but new interviews and B-roll are attractive, though there is some noticeable artifacting--the green backgrounds of the opening credit sequence are mighty jittery, and the shots of the grounds are messy as well. But the vivid colors of the artwork are lush and nicely rendered, and the Philadelphia beauty shots are rich and dimensional.
The 2.0 audio track gets the job done--interview audio is crisp, music is present but not overwhelming, audibility is strong.
Only one bonus feature, unfortunately: the fast-paced, tightly-cut Theatrical Trailer (2:33).
Questions of objectivity aside, The Art of the Steal is an absorbing, convincing picture, packing some truly shocking revelations into its third act and generating some genuine suspense along the way.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.