The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art

Shannon Quinn - November 5, 2018

Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne. These are all names that you have heard in art class, and when you imagine where their work exists today, you probably think of a museum surrounded by security cameras and guards. But for years, dozens of these priceless works of art were hanging in one man’s home: Albert C. Barnes.

Barnes was a wealthy chemist whose life was an all-American rags- to-riches story. He collected artwork from Europe, and when those artists became famous later on, they became priceless treasures. Instead of hiding his collection behind closed doors, Barnes invited people into his home to see them, so long as they made an appointment first. In his last will and testament, he explicitly stated that he did not want the art to leave his house. Since he never had kids, it became the property of The Barnes Foundation. However, a few years after he died, the city of Philadelphia came after his paintings.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
Albert. C. Barnes Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Albert Barnes Made His Fortune Saving Babies’ Eyes

Albert C. Barnes grew up in a very poor part of South Philadelphia that was known as “The Dumps”, and he was one of the very few white children living there after the Civil War. His father was a disabled war veteran, and his mother did her best to feed the family with their meager $8/month disability pension. He witnessed first-hand how much injustice there was in the city, and how badly poor people were treated by authorities. He knew that the only way he could possibly escape a life of poverty would be to study hard and get good grades.

He was accepted into the competitive Central High School, which lead to him getting accepted to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. As you can imagine, his tuition was expensive, even back in the 1800’s. There was no way his parents could afford to send him there, so Barnes earned money by becoming a professional boxer, baseball player, and tutor for some of the rich kids in his classes.

When he grew up, Albert C. Barnes became a chemist, and he traveled back and forth to Germany in order to work in some of the best laboratories in the world. Together with a friend named Hermann Hill, they invented an antiseptic made with silver nitrate called “Argyrol”. Its original purpose was to drop into baby’s eyes when they were born with sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea from their mother. Albert Barnes bought Hermann’s share in the company, and he moved back to the United States to open a corporation called The A.C. Barnes Company. He manufactured and sold the argyrol to doctors and hospitals all over the world.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
One of the original bottles of Argyrol to come from Barnes’ factory. Credit: Roger Barone on Twitter

Since he grew up in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood, Albert Barnes knew from first-hand experience how difficult it was for minorities to get out of their circumstances, receive a good education, and find a high-paying job. He wanted to help end the cycle of poverty by giving job opportunities to the black community. Nearly everyone he employed at his factory and laboratory was African American. At the end of every work day, he offered 2 hours of free classes in nearly every subject- philosophy, art, psychology, and more. This way, his staff was able to receive the equivalent of a college education for free.

Before Barnes invented Argyrol, babies born with gonorrhea would go blind. It was also used for a variety of other eye and sinus infections. So, his formula became incredibly valuable. In 1929, a company bought the Argyrol company from Barnes for a huge sum of money, which is very lucky on his part, because the stock market crashed almost immediately after. It was like he was receiving the best kind of karma in the world for all of his good deeds, and he was able to completely avoid losing money during The Great Depression.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
The Postman by Vincent Van Gogh. Credit: The Barnes Foundation

The Most Expensive Personal Art Collection In The World

After establishing his factory, Barnes was able to move his wife into a Tudor style mansion to Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, which is apart of the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia known as “The Main Line”. Barnes’ wife, Laura, loved gardening, and she took advantage by practicing the art of landscape design on their property. She was so talented at creating gorgeous gardens, that she would later go on to receive an honorary PhD in horticulture.

In 1911, Barnes reunited with one of his best friends from High School, William Glackens. Even though Barnes was athletic and found a career as a chemist, he was truly an artistic person at heart, and he only pursued a career in science in order to escape a life of poverty. The vast majority of his friends were artists, too. Glackens was always a very talented painter when they were young, and he moved to Paris to pursue his artistic career. When he returned to the United States, he founded the Aschcan School of American Art. Glackens told Barnes all about some of the best up-and-coming artists in Europe, and showed him some examples.

Barnes really wanted to have an extensive art collection in his new home, since the walls were looking pretty bare. He gave William Glackens $20,000 and asked for him to bring back a collection of some of the best pieces he could find. When Glackens returned to Philadelphia, he had 30 paintings with him from artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and more. Even though the paintings were all made by different artists, it was clear that Glackens bought each painting with a larger collection in mind. Somehow, the drastically different styles all belong together, and he arranged it a way that was better than most curated shows in any museum.

Over time, the world began to really appreciate and recognize these artists as legends and masters of their craft. William Glackens recognized their talent very early, of course, so Albert Barnes got those paintings for a huge bargain. Back in 1911, $20,000 was more like $500,000 after inflation. Today, the collection is worth $25 billion. (Yes, you are reading that correctly. That’s billion with a “B”.)

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
William Glackens was the one who purchased and curated the Albert Barnes art collection. Credit: The Barnes Foundation

Barnes did not want to just keep all of this art to himself. He regularly invited students from local schools into his home so that they could see the paintings, and he allowed guests to visit whenever they wanted. He even hired professors to teach art history classes full-time out of his home, and he published several books about the art in his collection so that other people could see photographs of these pieces, along with all of the details behind the paintings. It was never his goal to earn a profit. He already had plenty of money, and he just wanted young people to appreciate and love art as much as he did.

In the 1940’s, Albert Barnes met a man named Horace Mann Bond, who was the first black president of Lincoln University. For decades, the school was run by white men, even though it is an all-African American university. After becoming close friends with Bond and learning more about the difficulties in higher education, he realized how deeply racist the colleges in Philadelphia truly were. After learning this, he set up an art program with Lincoln University students and invited them into his home on a regular basis. He also wrote into his will that all of the racist universities in the city were banned from bringing their students to see his art collection.

Barnes died suddenly in 1951 from a car accident, but he had prepared for his death in his last will and testament. His employees continued to run the art programs out of his home, and racist schools were still banned from visiting the artwork. After his death, the city of Philadelphia immediately set upon taking the foundation to court, suing for public access to his home. They claimed that paintings should be available to everyone, not just the personal guests to his home. After ten years of litigation, in 1961, it was finally settled that anyone can visit the museum, as long as they make an appointment, first. Since this was on private property, only a handful of people could visit the art each day.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
The main room of the new Barnes Foundation. Credit: Visit Philly

The City of Philadelphia Pulled Off The Biggest Art Heist In History

Even though the artwork was the property of the Barnes estate, the city of Philadelphia did not give up on pursuing these priceless pieces. In 2009, the city was in desperate need of money after the 2008 recession. City politicians announced that they were going to take custody of the $25 billion artwork. They showed up with a warrant, and informed the employees of the foundation that they were seizing the paintings. Keep in mind- this is illegal. There is no expiration date on a last will and testament, so the city violated at least a dozen laws in order to just swoop in and steal private property.

The city told the public that the foundation in Lower Merion was going bankrupt, so that was their justification for seizing the artwork. However, this is wrong in so many ways. According to employees who were looking out for Albert Barnes’ estate, he left behind so much money, the organization could continue going for years, and they made plenty of money from their own ticket sales, too. The organization was not in any debt at all. And even if they were in some kind of financial trouble, that’s simply not how bankruptcy proceedings work.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
“The Dance” by Henri Matisse Credit: The Barnes Foundation

The employees who were running the original Barnes Foundation have sued the city of Philadelphia for the biggest art heist in history. The case had to be filed in the Pennsylvania state court, and the legal battle has been going on for years. But think about it- If you’re trying sue a city, and you have to file a lawsuit inside of said city, how well do you think that went?

Knowing that the legal system was corrupt in this case, the foundation paid for a documentary called The Art of the Steal, which uncovered the details of the theft. They hoped that once people knew the truth, there would be a public outcry, and the paintings would be restored to its rightful place. Even though the documentary got a lot of attention, and it even appeared on Netflix, the lawsuit is still ongoing, and the artwork has not been returned to its original destination.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
The new Barnes Foundation building in center city. Credit: Hidden City Philadelphia

The New Barnes Foundation

Today, the new Barnes Foundation is the furthest thing from the cozy-looking tudor mansion with inviting gardens. It is a rectangular concrete building that looks very cold and uninviting. Inside, there is everything you would expect from a museum; security guards, a coffee shop, a staff of curators, and a gift shop. Inside of this monolith of concrete and steel, there is a recreation of the layout how the paintings were hung in Albert Barnes’ home.

There are strict rules that guests cannot get too close to the artwork, and if you ask an employee, “who owns this artwork?” they get very uncomfortable, and quickly change the subject. To their credit, the employees who work there tried to carry on the traditions that Albert Barnes set out, and they will happily tell you how he invented antiseptic to save babies’ eyesight.

The City of Philadelphia Stole Billions of Dollars in Art
The gift shop at the new Barnes Foundation sells recreations of the work seen in the museum, plus other gift items. Credit: Charles Sparks

This new museum charges $30 per ticket, and it attracts visitors from all around the world. Just like the Louvre in Paris, The Barnes Foundation has become a new global tourist destination because of its priceless works of art that are on display. The city is making more money by renting out hotel rooms, selling food, etc., so it has helped the Philadelphia have some hope to escape their debt. Since its opening in 2012, the museum has had over a million visitors, meaning that they earned $30 million from displaying stolen property.

So, was all of this art even worth stealing? Depends on who you ask. The museum cost $200 million to build (even though the art was free.) So, even though $30 million in 5 years sounds impressive, that’s not taking overhead expenses and taxes into consideration, and to this day, they still have not paid off their original debt. The Philadelphia Inquirer raves about its “success”, while the Los Angeles Times has called it a “financial failure”, especially if the original foundation wins the case and takes their stolen property back.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Art Of The Steal: Actual Heist, Or Conspiracy Theory? Joel Rose. NPR.

Albert C. Barnes. Wikipedia.

The Art of The Steal. YouTube.

Lawyer: Shocking New Evidence in Barnes Foundation Case. Cheryl Allison. The Times Herald. 2012.

The Barnes Foundation Move to Philadelphia- And Possible Oblivion. Los Angeles Times.