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The Art of the Steal: movie review

Backroom wranglings over the prestigious Barnes Foundation art collection play out as good guy vs. bad guy in 'The Art of the Steal' documentary.

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No less an eminence than Henri Matisse once commented that The Barnes Foundation is "the only sane place to see art in America." Established in 1922 by the millionaire Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the privately held foundation, housed in a 12-acre jewel-box-like arboretum in leafy Lower Merion, Pa., five miles outside Philadelphia, contains perhaps the greatest concentration of post-Impressionist and early Modern masterpieces in the world – 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, 7 Van Goghs, to name just a few.

The combined value of these paintings, not to mention the Barnes's extensive collection of African art; old masters; ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art; medieval manuscripts; and American paintings; is more than $25 billion.

The documentary "The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott, chronicles how the foundation, since Barnes's death in 1951, has been undermined by Pennsylvania power brokers. Barnes's will stipulated that the paintings would never be loaned, sold, or removed from the building. Until Barnes's protégée, Violette de Mazia, died in 1988, this was pretty much the status quo. Subsequently, through a series of quasi-Machiavellian machinations, Barnes's will has been whittled down. The collection, despite numerous protests, is now scheduled to be removed from Merion and installed in 2012 in a new facility in downtown Philadelphia.

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