This fascinating documentary details the struggle for control of Dr. Albert C. Barnes’ private collection of modern and post-impressionist art, valued at 40-50 billion dollars. Even if you haven’t heard of Dr. Barnes or his phenomenal art collection, this film is a must-see.

First, you learn how one man of modest origins assembled the greatest private collection of art on the face of the earth, including 181 works by Renoir, 69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and multiple works by Modigliani, Degas, Van Gogh, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Soutine and Rousseau. During his lifetime, Dr. Barnes owned more of the world’s great modern art than the Louvre, MOMA and the Met combined!

However, Dr. Barnes was initially mocked by the Philadelphia art establishment for his penchant to collect such “primitive” works. So, he spent his lifetime keeping his collection private and away from the museum crowd. Instead, he created a foundation devoted to the teaching of art. He displayed his massive collection in a beautiful building he designed on his property situated in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, which included a 12-acre arboretum. The building was used primarily by the foundation’s art students; visits by the public were restricted. Henri Matisse once said that this location was “the only sane place to view art in America.”

Dr. Barnes specified in his will that the collection was never to be sold or loaned out for display, and that a trust established by him was to provide for its upkeep. After he died in a tragic automobile accident in 1951, Dr. Barnes’ trusted assistant, Violette De Mazia, took over his mission. She ran the foundation just as Dr. Barnes intended until her death in 1988. In that time, at least two generations of artists trained there. After Ms. De Mazia’s death, the trust specified that the collection would pass to Lincoln University, a small African American college that Dr. Barnes figured would have no ties to the rich art snobs of Philadelphia. Here is where our estate planning lesson comes in.

Dr. Barnes’ gift was a surprise to Lincoln University, which really didn’t know what to do with it. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for opportunists to pry their way to the helm of Lincoln’s board, and the beloved collection quickly became a political football.

The film shows how, over the next 20 years, the art was literally stolen from the Barnes estate by the City of Philadelphia through political subterfuge. Really interesting stuff! The frightening point is that, through rounds of court battles, the intent of the will was tossed to the curb. This man’s private property, legally devised by will and trust documents, was not only taken away, but the very opposite of his intent has resulted.

How could this have been prevented? Regardless of whether you have a priceless art collection or just items of sentimental value, you must think about the long term when it comes to estate planning. If Dr. Barnes had trusted Violette to pick her own successor or initially had appointed a board, say of five trusted persons, with the majority selecting a new member whenever a board member retired or died, there would have likely been a better chance that his vision would have continued. Also, had he stated more clear, objective criteria in the trust for preserving his collection, such as requiring that under no circumstances shall the art ever be displayed within the city limits of Philadelphia, he might have achieved his long term plans for the foundation.

Likewise, had he made provisions that permitted the trustees to sell one painting at a time to cover needed expenses for maintaining the collection, he might have avoided losing the entire collection to the cohort of art collectors he so despised. Unfortunately for Dr. Barnes, he did none of these things, but instead chose a successor who did not necessarily understand his vision and failed to provide the financial means necessary to see his intent fulfilled. What a sad – and likely preventable – outcome to such an exquisite, unique estate.

Image courtesy of nokhoog_buchachon  /

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