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Originally published Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'The Art of the Steal': What happens to art when its collector dies?

A review of Don Argott's passionate documentary, "The Art of the Steal," which chronicles the changing fate of a private art collection in Philadelphia.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'The Art of the Steal,' a documentary by Don Argott. 101 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Seven Gables.

"If you're going to leave your paintings somewhere," warns an art expert in Don Argott's passionate documentary "The Art of the Steal," "don't let there be a politician within 500 yards."

Argott's elegantly shot film explores the fate of the art owned by Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation, a remarkable private collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings, including 181 works by Renoir, 59 by Matisse and more Cézannes (69) than in the entire city of Paris. Barnes was a wealthy doctor who formed the foundation in 1922, to "promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of fine arts," housing his growing collection in an arboretum in Merion, outside Philadelphia.

Though Barnes created a trust which clearly spelled out what he wanted for his collection (to remain in its original home, viewable primarily by students though available to the public for limited hours), much has changed since his death in 1951. Argott shows the winding road of the collection's ownership for the past 60 years, leading to exactly what Barnes didn't want: plans for a vast public museum, in the city of Philadelphia, to house the paintings (now valued at more than $25 billion) in a setting far from the intimate, agreeably art-crammed rooms in Merion, arranged in a way "so that the art speaks to each other."

"The Art of the Steal" makes its point of view clear from the beginning: Argott ("Rock School") sees the fate of the Barnes as a tragedy and a travesty. Pacing the movie like a crime thriller, he introduces us to many witnesses of the Barnes' recent history, most of whom would agree with the characterization that this is "the greatest act of artistic vandalism since World War II." You feel and appreciate the filmmaker's conviction, even if the film ultimately feels incomplete: Without most of the voices on the other side of the argument (several key players, we're told, declined to be interviewed for the film), we're missing key parts of the story. Nonetheless, it's impossible not to be moved by the almost eerie film footage of the walls of the Barnes' original home with the art removed, revealing bare hooks and patches of unfaded paint: ghosts, doomed to wander.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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