Barnes Foundation court ruling: Not unexpected, still alarming

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A Pennsylvania court ruled Thursday against a challenge to allowing the Barnes Foundation -- an extraordinary art collection that stands as the most important cultural monument erected in the United States in the first half of the 20th century -- to be moved to a new tourist destination being built for it in downtown Philadelphia. (The new venue opens in May 2012.) A thorough report on the ruling is here. Essentially the court upheld its own earlier decisions in the case, which isn’t exactly a surprise.

Legal opinions on the court’s original decision, now underscored, are by no means unanimous, however, and the attorney for petitioners in the suit has also vowed to appeal Thursday’s ruling. Whatever the contested legalities, we can all be certain of one thing: The move is not at all what Albert C. Barnes wanted.

The late art collector, who died at 79 in 1951, is merely the guy who gave his 181 paintings by Renoir, 59 by Matisse, 46 by Picasso, 21 by Soutine, 18 by Rousseau, 16 by Modigliani, 11 by Degas, seven by Van Gogh, six by Seurat and more -- much, much more -- to the public. What Barnes wanted in return for his bequest, carefully laid out in documents, was plowed under by those who came after him.

So, we can also be certain of something else. Any number of potential living benefactors are among those watching the tragic Barnes saga unfold, and they are wondering the same thing: If his will was not sacrosanct, what about mine?


Thanks to Pennsylvania, a monstrous question mark now hangs over the future of charitable donations of artistic masterpieces in the U.S.


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--Christopher Knight