So how do you move many billions of dollars in art through Philadelphia?
“Very carefully,” says Barnes spokesman Andrew Stewart.
The Wall Street Journal has a piece on the transportation of paintings from the Barnes Foundation to a new building six miles away near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The move includes more than 181 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 69 by Paul Cézanne and 59 by Henri Matisse – including the mural The Dance II.
This reminded me of documentary I saw last year, The Art of the Steal, all about the contentious battle for ownership of the Barnes collection, which will culminate in next month’s move. It also reminded me of how I felt the documentary finished – that the art world is just as murky as Wall Street but at least on Wall Street they are honest enough to admit that it is all about the money.
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Henri Matisse - The Dance II mural at the Barnes Foundation
Watched The Art of The Steal, a documentary about the battle for ownership of the great art collection put together by Dr. Albert Barnes. He made a fortune selling drugs which he spent on art, especially on post-impressionist works,which he championed way ahead of the established US museums. The movie points out that The Barnes Foundation has more works by Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse than are in Paris, the Met, or MOMA.
I was interested in the film as I visited The Barnes Foundation, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, back in 1985 when it was only open two days a week – as stipulated in the will set up by Barnes who wanted the foundation to be an educational establishment rather than a public museum. The will also said the paintings were never to be moved, loaned or sold – but since it is now valued an estimated $25bn, it seems inevitable that in the modern art world his wishes would be ignored.
Given the documentary’s title it does not pretend to be objective and it is put together as a thriller with the real-life characters portrayed as good guys or bad guys. Like a good thriller, it holds your interest and is well-paced, but I would have preferred a more nuanced discussion on issues such as sticking to Barnes’ wishes versus giving as many ordinary people as possible access to the collection. And although the film is about art, the actual art does not feature very heavily.
At one point, protesters who object to moving the foundation picket a fund-raising gala which one of them dubs ‘The Predator’s Ball‘ – an event hosted by Micheal Milken, when he was head of junk bonds at disgraced securities firm Drexel and raising money for hostile takeovers of well-established US corporates.
It is ironic that after watching the documentary you are left with the impression that the art world is a lot more murky than Wall Street – at least on Wall Street they are honest enough to admit that it is all about the money.
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