Last-ditch effort to block Barnes move cites AG’s role

Posted: August 01, 2011

The state attorney general's office simply did not do its job when it agreed several years ago that the financial perils of Merion's Barnes Foundation would best be remedied by moving the fabulous art trove to Philadelphia.

In what amounts to a last-ditch legal effort to block the move of one of the world's greatest collections of late 19th- and early 20th-century art, an attorney on Monday told Montgomery County Orphans' Court Judge Stanley R. Ott that the attorney general's office "clearly did not do probing advocacy" in the case.

Samuel C. Stretton, arguing to reopen the Barnes case, cited "new information" that he said demonstrates that former state attorney general Mike Fisher pressured the board of Lincoln University to accept a diminished role on the Barnes board of trustees. Lincoln controlled the foundation thanks to terms of a trust indenture drawn up by patent-medicine maker and art connoisseur Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951.

The "new information" was contained in the 2009 movie The Art of the Steal, which largely recapitulated material contained in stories that appeared in The Inquirer from 2002 to 2005.

Lawrence Barth, senior deputy attorney general, argued that his office investigated the financial conditions surrounding the foundation prior to litigation and determined "something had to be done" to preserve the Barnes.

His office, Barth said, is not expected to be neutral.

"The attorney general represents the public interest," Barth told Ott, and in this case, the office determined that the public and the foundation would best be served by the move to Philadelphia.

Stretton took issue with that, asking incredulously, "What is his role? Just a supervisor?"

Ott, who had chided the attorney general's office for seeming passivity during the original Barnes hearings several years ago, told Stretton that Barth "didn't hide his position from me" during those earlier hearings.

The 90-minute hearing was held to determine whether the case should be reopened and if opponents of the move had legal standing before the court. Standing has been repeatedly denied in the case over the years.

Richard Ralph Feudale, a lawyer and author of Barnes Rune 2012: Decoding the Mysteries of Pennsylvania's Barnes Foundation, A Special American Place, also argued that the case should be reopened. Ott combined his separate court petition with the opponents' petition to expedite a ruling.

Ott did not indicate when he would issue a ruling.


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter

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