Few would disagree that the Barnes Collection in Merion, Pa., is one of the world's great private art collections. It contains 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, and 180 Renoirs. Yet half a century after Albert Barnes's death, comparatively few people have actually seen these extraordinary treasures.
The will Dr. Barnes left behind sets out peculiarly restrictive and idiosyncratic terms of indenture. And as John Anderson puts it in his book, "Art Held Hostage," a great amount of "mischief" has ensued because of this will. "Quarreling and politicking" is how he sums it up, but it requires a narrative more complicated than a colony of spider's webs to spell it out.
Ironically, Barnes's mischief has brought the endowment he left behind to the brink of bankruptcy, mired the foundation in litigation and political shenanigans, subjected it to local protest, and even made it appear, spuriously, to be the victim of racial prejudice.
If all this were Barnes's ultimate intention, one would have to assume that he wished on his legacy (and posthumous reputation) a melodramatic future of notoriety and mayhem. It would seem a perverse use of the glories of great art.
But some people believe that Barnes, a physician who made a fortune marketing pharmaceuticals, may not have meant what became his final testament to be final. It may have been only a temporary part of his own politicking - when his accidental death intervened in 1951.
In any case, Barnes's trust indenture granted control solely to Lincoln University, near Wilmington, Del., the oldest black college in America. It's not impossible that Barnes intended this to be a direct snub not only to all the white educational institutions in Pennsylvania, but to the state's art establishment, too.
His will also went out of its way to make public access to the Barnes limited and difficult. He ruled that the trustees may not sell, lend, tour, or move the collection. And he insisted that the endowment be invested exclusively in government securities, a policy that, by the early 1970s, reduced the value of the endowment dramatically.
Great art is not, of course, just beauty. It is also great monetary value. One of the more expressive (and unstintingly litigious) presidents of the foundation, lawyer Richard Glanton, hit this nail squarely on the head when Anderson asked him what all the quarreling and politicking involving the Barnes were "really about."
"About who controls $4.5 billion worth of art," he said with a bluntness that Barnes would have appreciated.
Anderson leaves no doubt that the self-made, social-climbing Barnes could be spiky, opinionated, eccentric, and eager to fight with factions he disliked (art historians and critics high on the list). He was even described as "a crude man" who "liked to shock people." Anderson calls his personality "extreme."
But this potent mix of a "high-minded Victorian" and a blatantly nouveau riche entrepreneur was also a white, lifelong student of black culture and, above all, a daring and original collector who never paid more than $1,000 for a single piece of art.
The terms of his will may be puzzling, but one indication of his motivation might be that Barnes, though besotted with art, did not collect art simply for art's sake. He was an educational idealist. Anderson quotes scholar Richard Wattenmaker observing that "what really set Barnes apart from other collectors 'was his conviction that ... works of art could be employed as tools in an educational experiment.' "
Ironically, moves afoot today could result in the Barnes finally becoming part of those very art institutions he was determined to avoid. But that is a chapter still to be told. And it would, at last, have to break the terms of Barnes's will.
Such restrictions were bound to be subjected to all sorts of attempts to break them. The temptation to deaccession, for example, and sell even one Matisse or Renoir to help lift the Barnes out of its financial pit, has surfaced unsuccessfully more than once.
Anderson is a contributing editor to The American Lawyer, and he's well qualified to steer a meandering yet clear route through the maze of chicanery, legal procedure, and argument. He is also unsparing in his dissection of the often suspect motives of his confusingly large cast of characters. It is their frequent self-interest and dubious ambitions that prompted art critic Hilton Kramer to accuse them of turning "the Barnes ... into a veritable Bleak House," when they ought to have been protecting it.
If there is a flashy villain in this story, it must be Glanton (also a notable figure in the internal politics at Lincoln University). He was so blatantly politicking that another lawyer in one of the court cases described him as "the definition of the incorrigible."
Anderson portrays him as an irrepressible egotist who thinks of himself as the collection's hero. His greatest boast was organizing, as Barnes president, the first and so far only tour of masterpieces in the collection.
But in an attempt to gain legal right to make a parking lot against local zoning restrictions, he plunged the Barnes into a costly and unsuccessful federal civil rights action against the township. Known as the Ku Klux Klan suit, it alleged, as drafted by Glanton, that the township's objections to the parking lot were racially motivated. By the accounts of others involved, however, playing this racial card was simply a cynical ploy, which eventually cost the foundation more than $6 million.
But Glanton is by no means the only protagonist in Anderson's account to be swimming around in murky or farcical legal and political waters. This book is a study of the kinds of ruthless antics in which people indulge when propelled by ambition, self-interest, greed, and status-seeking. It certainly doesn't pretend to be much about art. The supreme paintings and sculptures in the Barnes Collection are little more than very costly wallpaper in this preposterous soap opera.
• Christopher Andreae writes about art for the Monitor from Glasgow, Scotland.