The Art of the Steal plays like a thrilling whodunit as it seeks to solve what happened to the world-renowned Barnes art collection, valued in the “billions and billions.” The collection’s unrivalled holdings of post-impressionist and early modernist art are staggering in quantity: 181 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne, 59 by Matisse and 46 by Picasso, including many masterpieces. Dr. Albert Barnes was a self-made man with a well-trained eye who assembled the art in the twenties. He snubbed the provincial elites in his hometown of Philadelphia by housing the collection in the suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania. Rather than grouping canvases by artist or era as in a typical gallery, he displayed work in an idiosyncratic way to express his own aesthetic vision. Barnes was more concerned with educating serious students in his vision than reaching casual tourists, so he restricted attendance and refused to loan paintings to other institutions. His individualism earned him antagonists (notably Walter Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer) but also many loyal supporters. Upon Barnes’s death in 1951, his will gave control of the collection to the trustees of Lincoln University, the first black university in the United States. Eventually, lawyers and business people swarmed to exploit its resources. In the nineties, a sampling of the collection travelled the world on a multi-city tour (including Toronto). Then a scheme was hatched to permanently remove the collection from Merion that some would later call the heist of the century. [Synopsis courtesy of TIFF]
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