VF Daily

The One Percent

The Art of Stealing from the Rich and Dead

Every Tuesday on VF.com, filmmaker Jamie Johnson offers a glimpse into the secret lives of the super-rich.

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The Art of The Steal, an absorbing new documentary that chronicles the contentious battle for control over the roughly $25 billion modern art collection assembled by the late pharmaceutical magnate Albert C. Barnes, is a good reminder of just how elusive the dream of an enduring legacy can be for the very rich.

In Barnes’s case, as the comprehensive documentary instructively details, his wish to leave behind a permanent institution that would house his collection of prized European paintings gradually has evolved into a scandalous nightmare. At the end of his life, Barnes stipulated in a will and in trust agreements that his works of fine art must remain in the special location he created for them. But over time, disagreements and uncertainty among the individuals placed in charge of the collection have led to a betrayal of the great art-lover’s inspired vision. And now, Barnes’ carefully laid plan to preserve his masterpieces for posterity on his former estate is being scrapped in favor of a controversial arrangement that will soon transfer his collection to a new public facility in Philadelphia. The move is especially sensitive because the replacement site stands right next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an establishment Barnes ardently detested.

Examples of glaringly manipulative, and sometimes unlawful, interpretations of high-profile wills are surprisingly common among wealthy Americans. Contrary to what most people might believe, the rich routinely fail to draft effective trust agreements that faithfully carry out their dying wishes. In fact, power struggles over inherited wealth are so endemic in the culture of affluence that nearly all of the nation’s most profitable law firms maintain trust-and-estates divisions whose sole purpose is to handle such disputes—and reap the financial rewards.

Historically, the leaders of vastly rich families have gone so far as to reserve six percent of their fortunes for payments to long-suffering estate lawyers. Problems of this nature occur so regularly that attending to them becomes practically a permanent job.

Disagreements often result from trust and will documents that can never be specific enough. Products of a particular moment, such documents cannot anticipate future developments, so, while people and financial institutions grow and change, charters do not. Conflicts inevitably arise, and opportunities for manipulative, even illegal, behavior emerge.

Executors of wills and others entrusted with managing supposedly irrevocable trust agreements can seize the chance to alter events in their own favor. Such an instance plays out in much the same way as a military coup. A sudden power play may be denounced when it happens, but once executed it becomes extremely difficult to reverse. Ironically, those hired to protect the benefactor—attorneys, banks, etc.—are as likely as the beneficiaries to stage such attacks.

No illegality has ever been proven in the Barnes scenario, but it’s easy for me to imagine how outsiders could have wrested control of the great collector’s legacy and contravened his wishes. Thanks to the vagaries of legal documents and the general greed that money seems always to breed in humans, the rich rarely get to control their bequests from the grave. One former official from The Metropolitan Museum of Art summed up the phenomenon neatly in a recent conversation with me about naming rights for large gifts. “What does perpetuity really mean?” he asked. “A lifetime?”

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