Briefly Noted: Civic Art Theft


When Albert C. Barnes died in 1951, he bequeathed his art collection, which includes 180 Renoirs and is estimated to be worth $30 billion, to a foundation, on the condition that it become a resource for students, not a museum for the public. The Philadelphia authorities then conspired to break the will and bring the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Barnes despised.

The villains of The Art of the Steal, director Don Argott's polemical documentary charting the fate of Barnes' collection, are fairly easy to spot. When viewers are introduced to Walter Annenberg, the late owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and an outspoken advocate of opening the collection to the public, the music turns foreboding and the narrator announces that Annenberg was a Republican friendly with the Reagans. 

Yet the film is essentially a vigorous defense of private property rights against Philadelphia's government. Argott has unwittingly made a libertarian documentary.