Don Argott's engrossing documentary makes no bones about its allegiances. The Art of the Steal bills itself, after all, as "the true story of a multibillion-dollar heist and how they got away with it." It tracks the decades-long pursuit of the most impressive and coveted private art collection in the world, that of Philadelphia resident Albert Barnes, who caught on to Post-Impressionism long before the general public, or even the art establishment, did.
The press branded an early showing of Barnes' collection - which featured scores of Matisses, Picassos and Cézannes, among many other now-essential names - as "primitive art"; it was a slight Barnes never forgot. Nor did the working-class-born Barnes have any patience for Philadelphia swells, who treated art as accessory and support of the arts as a backdrop for social activity.
In short, he was no fan of Philly, which is why he very pointedly set up the permanent home for his collection, the Barnes Foundation, five miles from downtown Philadelphia in the township of Lower Merion. There, he established the foundation as an educational program, not a museum, which limited access hours to the public. Fearing encroachment from his sworn enemies, Barnes set up a trust that explicitly stated that upon his death, no piece in the collection could be sold, loaned or moved. Upon his death, that's exactly what Philadelphia power players (including the mayor, governor and the Annenberg Foundation, among others) began trying to do, culminating in a $200 million bid to move the foundation to new digs in downtown Philadelphia.
While The Art of the Steal makes a very convincing argument that the people and foundations that essentially hijacked the Barnes Foundation are primarily concerned with tourist dollars and not the preservation of Barnes' legacy, the film fails to even ponder why easier access to some of the world's greatest art treasures might not be an entirely bad thing.