"They're quality works," said Kimberly Camp, executive director of the Barnes. "Some would be any other museum's major works, and if we can find a way to effectively use them to further the Barnes mission, then there's no reason we shouldn't do it."
This "lost" art of the Barnes, as Camp calls it, is just a tiny fraction of the Merion gallery's collection. Most of the holdings, and all of the true masterpieces, are already on display in the foundation gallery.
But even this small sliver of the collection is noteworthy. Stored at Ker-Feal, the foundation's Chester County farmstead, is a decorative-arts collection that independent museum consultant Prudence Haines calls spectacular. Hung almost haphazardly throughout the Barnes administrative offices are dozens of important paintings by artists such as Gustave Courbet, Maurice Prendergast, Jules Pascin, Chaim Soutine and William Glackens.
"What was most memorable for me is the wonderful collection of Pascin," said Derek Gillman, dean of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "It's a collection that would be a major component for any museum, and it's very exciting to see them just hanging around the administrative offices."
The foundation staff has begun only recently to evaluate seriously this unseen side of its collection. No outside scholars have closely studied these paintings at least since founder Albert C. Barnes' death in 1951, so the staff is unsure how the art world will regard these holdings.
"Some of [the works] are incredible and some may not be," Camp said. "But we need them to see the light of day so this evaluation can occur."
Despite the uncertainty, the Barnes' leaders have reached the potentially controversial decision that this "lost" art could help the nearly broke foundation regain its financial footing.
But there are reasons to doubt a "lost" art tour could solve the foundation's significant financial problems.
First, it is unlikely that these lesser holdings would attract the same intense interest that the tour of the Barnes masterpieces did. Because so little is known about these works, it is unclear whether there would be a demand for them.
Several outside experts said they weren't familiar enough with the paintings to gauge potential interest, but Gillman believes there would be at least some, in part because of the Barnes' reputation.
"It was clear from the last tour that anything to do with the Barnes excites interest," Gillman said. "And also, the quality is high. It's not as if what they have is thin."
Second, there is the serious question of whether Barnes would have wanted these holdings to leave their quiet resting places. His indenture, which legally binds the foundation, states that "all the paintings shall remain in exactly the places they are at the time of the death of donor and his said wife." Other provisions in the indenture are designed to prevent works in the collection from being lent to other institutions.
Yet many of the works under consideration were moved from Barnes' home and office shortly after his death. Camp is uncertain whether the "lost" art is part of the "collection" Barnes restricted.
Ultimately, that decision would have to be made by the Montgomery County Orphans Court, which has jurisdiction over the Barnes estate. The court permitted the mid-1990s tour, which brought $17 million to the foundation, but as a one-time-only event.
If the Barnes can persuade the court that another exception is warranted, foundation leaders say even a modestly successful tour could help the foundation stave off potential insolvency.
That threat became widely known just last month after a decade of rising costs and expensive litigation drained the Barnes' endowment. The foundation is putting most of its efforts into an $85 million fund-raising campaign announced in September, but officials are also seeking other options, such as the possible tour, to raise Barnes income.
The prospect of learning more about these hidden holdings intrigues outside scholars.
Little is known, for example, about a rare and potentially important 2,700-year-old Greek funeral urn stored below the main gallery. The Barnes collection of colorful painted pottery by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, may be unique.
"It's not like there are 100 Matisses or anything like that, but there is the famous [Giorgio] de Chirico portrait of Barnes himself, and then there's a big Courbet of great distinction hanging on the stairs," said Joseph Rishel, a senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "But there is a lot there I know very little about."
There is much the Barnes itself does not know about its holdings. In fact, the foundation is not entirely sure what it owns.
No complete inventory of the Barnes collection has ever been made, much less a detailed catalogue.
Some of the money the foundation seeks in its new fund-raising campaign would be used for a "collections-assessment project," foundation conservator Barbara Buckley said.
The $3 million project would fund a complete inventory, make digital and film images of the entire collection, and provide for a conservation assessment as well as limited scholarship on several unique areas of the collection.
In the meantime, important and valuable holdings are not properly cared for, Camp said.
There is no money to appropriately store or clean the fine Oriental rugs in many of the rooms.
There is no budget to buy even inexpensive desks and chairs, so employees sit on Chippendale chairs and stack books on early-American tables that would be better suited in Independence Hall.
"Given their [the employees'] circumstances, they are as aware as they possibly can be of the things they are literally working around," Haines said. "But it shouldn't be used in offices like this. Anywhere else it would be on display or in storage."
Patrick Kerkstra's e-mail address is email@example.com