Looting Dr. Barnes: Philly Plutocrats Plunder a Legacy

It looks as if the sad saga of the Barnes Foundation-a saga of Philadelphia history repeating itself-is approaching its tragic dénouement. With the Philadelphia Inquirer leading the assault and the governor of Pennsylvania, Edward G. Rendell, providing the necessary cash-mountains of it-from the state treasury, the enemies of the late Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) are about to achieve their fondest desire: the “legal theft,” as it has been dubbed, of Dr. Barnes’ great collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings.

For latecomers to the Barnes saga, a little history may be in order. In 1925, Barnes, who made a fortune in patent medicines of his own creation, established the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, Penn., a suburb of Philadelphia, as an art school based on the study of his own world-class art collection and the books he devoted to the work of modern masters he especially favored-among them, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse. From the outset, then, the Barnes Foundation was not meant to function as an art museum; it was a teaching institution. Admission to the foundation was limited to its students, teachers and small number of outsiders who were obliged to apply in writing for the privilege of studying the collection.

My own experience may have been typical. When I first wrote for permission to visit the foundation in the 1950’s, I did so on the letterhead of the art journal that I was editing, and I was promptly turned down. On the advice of a friend, however, I wrote again-this time on a plain sheet of paper-and was promptly invited to visit Lower Merion. In his own lifetime, Barnes had been at loggerheads with the official art world, and his staff at the Barnes continued the practice of rejecting requests from anyone suspected of being in league with that world.

Such behavior may sound silly or peevish in retrospect, but the fact is that Barnes had good reason to regard the museum establishment, especially in Philadelphia, with suspicion and contempt. Official Philadelphia had not always been so eager to claim his art collection as a prize. In the early days of his collecting efforts, the paintings he acquired-many of them masterworks of the School of Paris-were literally denounced in Philadelphia as the work of “madmen,” and Barnes himself was thought to be crazy for spending so much money on them. Barnes understood that his judgments were too advanced for the local philistines to comprehend, and he was never a man to suffer ignorance gladly.

Moreover, he felt a profound loathing for the kind of social-climbing and class snobbery that was then, as now, often associated with art collecting, and he criticized the museum establishment for encouraging such snobbery. He wasn’t wrong about that, either.

After rejecting Barnes during his lifetime as something of a charlatan, official Philadelphia awakened to the fact that his foundation was indeed in possession of a world-class collection. Efforts were launched to remove the collection from the foundation in order to deliver the paintings into the hands of the very establishment that had ridiculed the late collector’s endeavors. He was right to be peevish and resentful.

He was also right to worry about the future of his collection. Indeed, it was in the hope of preventing posthumous “theft” that Barnes placed his trust in Lincoln University, a historically black college, by giving its trustees legal authority over the foundation’s governance. This trust was misplaced. As soon as Governor Rendell came up with sufficient grants to satisfy the Lincoln trustees-the final sum is said to total $180 million-Lincoln dropped its opposition to a takeover of the Barnes collection. A judge is now scheduled to hold a hearing in December on whether the transfer of the collection to some newly created museum in Philadelphia would violate the terms of Dr. Barnes’ will, which ostensibly prohibits the removal of the collection from the installation he designed for it in Lower Merion.

The will also prohibits the sale of the paintings, but once the terms of the will have been abrogated, it’s highly unlikely that a collection with 170 Renoirs, 55 Cézannes and significant holdings of Matisse, Picasso and more would not tempt future administrators of the new museum to look upon the Barnes Foundation’s treasures as a cash cow.

About future sales, we can only speculate. What we know for a certainty is that there’s a Philadelphia precedent for what would amount to a looting of the Barnes collection. In the 1930’s, the art collection of John G. Johnson-mostly Old Masters-was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in flagrant contradiction of Johnson’s stated wishes. Johnson had been Barnes’ lawyer as well as a friend, and it was the spectacle of this betrayal that prompted Barnes to take what he thought were sufficient measures to prevent the same fate for his own collection.

What we now know, of course, is that whatever legal provisions a collector makes are worthless if the right combination of power and money is mobilized to ensure a different outcome. Needless to say, the implications of this kind of treachery are terrifying to ponder. Richard L. Feigen, the well-known New York art dealer who has been a trustee of Lincoln University and also served on an art advisory committee at the Barnes Foundation, was quoted in The New York Times the other day describing this episode as “an outright theft of Barnes’s legacy.” “Legal theft” is what John Anderson, the author of Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection , called it in The Wall Street Journal . Alas, this is what the Barnes saga has now come to: a carnival of power, money and “legal theft” that will forever remain a stain on Philadelphia’s reputation.