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An eye-opening tracing of the fate of one of the most prestigious collections of art in the world
"The Art of the Steal" follows the fate of The Barnes Collection, the most prestigious and valuable post-impressionist art collection in the world, tracing the battle between collector and museums over the course of 75 years. The origin of the collection is quite a story: Dr. Barnes, who had gained wealth in breakthrough scientific research, acquired some of the best modern paintings of the time by having something that museums and art critics of the time didn't have - taste and pure intuition. Over time, however, the artwork garnered the acclaim it deserved, but Barnes was determined to keep his collection private and have it appreciated by those who were willing to give the paintings the proper study they deserved. This belief became a trademark of his estate, but after Barnes' death and the passage of time, ownership of the collection became more and more blurry and penetrable to former enemies of Barnes, namely The Philadelphia Enquirer and The Philadelphia Art Museum, who wished to make the gallery public. After years of legal struggle (a series of back and forths the documentary covers to an almost painful degree), the city finally obtains it for a measly $107 million, a shadow to the estimated $25 billion the collection is worth.
The documentary is very clear in pointing out that the fate of the collection is directly contrary to what Barnes had wished for it. In fact, everyone who has hands currently on the collection are the very people who opposed and battled the existence of the collection to begin with. What the documentary doesn't present very well is the passage of time - Barnes has been dead for nearly 60 years, and keeping the wishes of a dead man alive when that much money is at stake and ownership is juggled around naturally becomes a more and more difficult thing to do. What it effectively portrays is the tourist attraction that art has become, a cash cow to governments who have the opportunity to capitalize on it. Whether this is a travesty or not is up to debate, but what is certain is that the city of Philadelphia effectively stole the property of Barnes and mocked the idea of personal wealth. The overall outcome is that now the collection can be viewed by anyone and everyone publicly - a point that the documentary seems determined not to emphasize (one reason is probably because 90% of the interviewees were associated with or supported the original foundation.) As nothing more than a spectator, I'm personally excited that this legendary artwork will be on display for everyone to see for the first time, but being aware of the underbelly of politics behind the gallery makes the silver lining all the more bittersweet.
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