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Art of the Steal

Intriguing doc about crisis in the art world around the Barnes Institution

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It sounds pretty dry: A handful of museums, foundations and art-world people fight in the courts for control of an art collection plenty of people have never heard of. But Don Argott's documentary about suburban Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation is a gripping tale, full of plot twists, revenge, dastardly deeds, bitchy slings and arrows, dirty politics -- and yes, your state tax dollars. This is a straightforward doc comprised primarily of talking heads that unspools like an airport thriller.

In the early 20th century, self-made physician Albert Barnes bought art, primarily post-Impressionist and modern pieces. Barnes housed his private collection in a commissioned building outside Philly, which was run as an educational institution. All was fine, until Barnes and, later, his worthy successor died -- and the value of the collection began to soar into the billions of dollars. By the 1980s, a protracted battle had begun, as various powerbrokers sought control of the collection, and Barnes' adherents fought to preserve both the institution's function and the intent of Barnes' will.

Throughout the film, I was reminded of Africa's "resource curse," which posits that the concentrated wealth and power generated by valuable resources in certain "lucky" nations often leads to disastrous circumstances. So, too, was it an unlucky turn of fate that Barnes' idiosyncratic, personal collection proved so unfathomably valuable that it couldn't be left to idle away "untapped." If only the doctor had collected antique steam-irons like one of the Barnes supporters interviewed in this film ... Starts Fri., April 2. Manor

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