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‘The Art of the Steal’

“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.

Barnes was a wealthy doctor who housed his growing collection in an arboretum outside the city. Though he created a trust which clearly spelled out what he wanted – for the artwork to remain in its original home, viewable primarily by students – much has changed since his death in 1951.

Argott shows the winding road of the collection’s ownership over the past 60 years, leading to exactly what Barnes didn’t want: plans for a vast public museum downtown to house the paintings, valued at more than $25 billion.

Pacing the movie like a crime thriller, Argott introduces us to many witnesses, most of whom would agree with the characterization that this is “the greatest act of artistic vandalism since World War II.”

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 collection’s original home with the art removed, revealing bare hooks and patches of unfaded paint – ghosts, doomed to wander.

“The Art of the Steal” is playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre.