The Art of the Steal (2009)


(Streaming on Netflix as of 10/9/2011)

Like you, I’ve heard the names of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Vincent van Gogh. But until I watched The Art of the Steal I had never heard the name Albert C. Barnes.

In the first half of the 20th century, Albert C. Barnes assembled a private collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern art that art historians agree has no equal. And according to this compelling documentary, it was stolen with the whole world watching.

(What made this movie even more compelling to me—and why it was recommended to me by a friend—is that I live within 25 miles of Barnes’s gallery and I’d never even heard of it.)

This is the story of the little guy vs. the big guys. And given the title, I’m not spoiling anything when I say how frustrating it is to watch the big guys win. Yet it’s such a fascinating story, you can’t help but root for the little guy anyway.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…

Interestingly enough though, by the end of the movie, I found myself wondering if this “theft” is really as bad as it seems. I mean, we’re talking about where a collection of art lives. The physical collection is not being destroyed or even endangered. Yes, there’s important issues of honoring a person’s will, manipulating public funds, etc. but there are real life-and-death injustices in the world that make me a lot angrier than the disposition of a dead man’s art collection.

And I wonder too just how much Albert Barnes himself was clouded by his own animosities and ego. Was every decision he made truly in the best interest of “art” or did he too exploit his collection for personal reasons? Of course, it was his collection to exploit or do whatever else he wanted with, and that’s the point of this movie. And the filmmakers do get it right, I think, when it comes to who the good guys and bad guys are in this story.

But in the final analysis, I think the good guys are maybe not as good and the bad guys not quite as bad as they’re presented here.

Regardless, it’s a fascinating film. Especially recommended for artists and people in the Philadelphia area.

More info at IMDb , RottenTomatoes, and Amazon.com.

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