The Art of the Steal (2009) 720p

Movie Poster
The Art of the Steal (2009) - Movie Poster
Frame Rate:
23.976 fps
English 2.0
Run Time:
101 min
IMDB Rating:
7.6 / 10 
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Directors: Don Argott [Director] ,

Movie Description:
Documentary that follows the struggle for control of Dr. Albert C. Barnes' 25 billion dollar collection of modern and post-impressionist art.


  • The Art of the Steal (2009) - Movie Scene 1
  • The Art of the Steal (2009) - Movie Scene 2
  • The Art of the Steal (2009) - Movie Scene 1

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"bad guys" win

In 1922, Albert Barnes created the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia to house his collection of post-impressionist and early modern art. In 2007, the $Billions collection was 'stolen' from its Lower Merion location to downtown Philadelphia with the need for high-end art for public consumption, crocked politicians, money-hungry non-profits, and big moneyed establishment. Barnes had made his fortune creating a cure. He hated the conservative establishment in Philadelphia and collected great modern artists in Paris when they were dismissed by the art world. His collection was initially attacked by art critics. Then he was criticized for not showing the collection enough. He got into a life-long fight with Philadelphia Inquirer's owners tax-evading Moses Annenberg and Nixonian son Walter. After Barnes' death in 1951, it begins a long running battle to gain control of the foundation. This is very informative and more insightful than most fictional movies. It also proves that the good guys don't always win and money talks. It's a great if one-sided investigative documentary.

Entertaining and well made if one sided

Interesting and entertaining look at how a bunch of the powerful in Philadelphia basically conspired to take one of the great modern art collections in the world away from it's home in the suburbs, , and transplant them into Philadelphia proper, against the express wishes left in Albert C. Barnes will (made in 1922).

While there's no question the tactics used by those in power are sleazy, the film also ignores what I consider a key issue: Is it really such a bad thing that one of the most amazing collections of modern art be much more accessible to the public, even if it violates the will of a man with no heirs who has been dead over 50 years? At what point do old grudges - going both ways - count less than art belonging to the world? I'm not saying there are neat answers to such questions, but the film acts like there's no moral murkiness at all.

Similarly the film uses questionable tactics to argue its case. For example it's constantly stating how those on the 'other side' refuse to be interviewed. Yet, it is clear that the ideology of the film-makers is known to all involved -- the film is financed by one of the leaders of the group fighting against the collections movement, and guards at a gathering of those planning the art move know not to allow in this specific film crew, even mentioning their production company name. If you knew you a film was being made whose basic premise is that you're a swindler a cheat and a thief with no respect for art, would you agree to be interviewed?

Additionally, some of those who seem so calm and well reasoned while being interviewed and arguing the art should be left where it is, seem a little less impressive when you see them outside that same gathering screaming 'philistines!' at those going inside.

None-the less, I still enjoyed the film, and there's no question it does a good job exposing the fact that many of our biggest public trusts and charitable institutions have a lot going on besides 'acting in the public interest', and are willing to play dirty pool to get what they want. I just find it hard to see this as a case of moral outrage to rank with the Iraq war, or starving children, or the U.S. educational crisis. It's basically rich people hating on rich people. Fun, but not as nutritious as all that.


This documentary, while reasonably well-made and engaging, is essentially a piece of agitprop. It was produced and directed by, and stars, the loose connection of former Barnes teachers and other Friends of the Barnes who opposed the reorganization and relocation of the Barnes Museum of early modern masterpieces to downtown Philadelphia. Sure, politics was played and facts may have been concealed, but the counterargument for not moving the museum and opening it more broadly to the public never really surfaces in this film.

The Barnes was undercapitalized, the last of the original trustees had passed, the trust beneficiary, a struggling state college, did not want manage it actively, the residential neighbors in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania were crying "NIMBY" over the arrival of busloads of out-of-state visitors, and there were no living lineal descendants of the trustor, a quirky pharma pioneer described in the film as a "misanthrope," who died in a 1951 automobile accident at the wheel of his old Packard convertible. The art collection was literally and figuratively orphaned. No wonder the case was brought in Orphans Court.

The film convinced me, but it convinced me only to visit Philadelphia and take in the art collection in its new downtown home.
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