Barnes collection's move a study in secrecy

"La Danse" has been installed at the Barnes' new city site, but Merion neighbors haven't noticed the comings and goings. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
"La Danse" has been installed at the Barnes' new city site, but Merion neighbors haven't noticed the comings and goings. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer (The three-panel Matisse mural)
Posted: March 18, 2012

The CIA couldn't do a better stealth job than the Barnes Foundation.

With the new Barnes museum set to open in mere weeks, the foundation appears to have carried out much of the complex job - almost industrial in its scale, but oh so delicate in its handling - of packing up and moving billions of dollars in art objects from the suburban Main Line to a new home on the Parkway.

Like any proper covert operation, this one is being undertaken on a need-to-know basis, and those in the know aren't talking. "We have no comment on anything to do with the move of the Barnes Foundation collection, for security reasons," said Andrew Stewart, the Barnes spokesman.

The new museum is to open May 19, but neighbors of the 12-acre Albert C. Barnes estate on North Latchs Lane in Merion say they haven't seen any sign of trucks coming and going.

"I have been looking for things; I don't think they've moved the artwork yet," said Nancy Herman, who resides across from one of three wrought-iron gates to the estate.

"We have no idea," conceded her husband, Walter.

Clearly, a lot of the art has been relocated. The most difficult object to transport - the huge, three-panel La Danse mural by Matisse - has been photographed and shown to the public in its new Center City space. Journalists allowed into the new museum have seen paintings in at least two other galleries.

With about 4,500 objects to be shipped from the museum's permanent collection, simple arithmetic suggests that the transfer must be pretty far along. It could take dozens and dozens of truck trips to ferry all of the artworks in bulky, padded, weatherproof, crash-proof wrappings and crates.

The objects hitting the highways include decorative arts, mantelpieces, and sculptures, as well as world-famous paintings. Albert Barnes, a medical doctor and industrial chemist, displayed antique door keys, hinges, even surgical saws on the same walls that included hundreds of Cezannes, Renoirs, and Picassos.

The distance is short - 6.2 miles, according to Google Maps, if you take the Schuylkill Expressway.

The only other time that any Barnes art went on the road was for a three-stop exhibition tour in the 1990s to Washington, Paris, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. About 90 works made the trip.

This time, at least, airplanes aren't involved.

Perhaps in solidarity with the Barnes Foundation's secrecy obsession, experts at several national-caliber art museums did not take calls on what is required for such a move.

Leaders at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were not available for comment.

Robert K. Wittman, a former Philadelphia FBI agent and founder of the agency's National Art Crime Team, said he suspects "a lot of the art" already has made the trip safely.

"I think most of it is done; I think there is a little more to do," he said.

Wittman has had an indirect role as a consultant on the move, but he emphasized he has no direct knowledge of what has taken place. "I am only speculating," he said.

He said that brazen, put-your-hands-up art heists are very, very rare. If art goes missing, it's usually from gallery walls or private estates.

"It is very difficult to sell the paintings anyway," he said.

They're too famous to show off.

Wittman did, however, investigate the case of a lost Francisco Goya masterwork that was en route by truck from Toledo, Ohio, to the Guggenheim museum in New York in 2005.

The driving team got tired and decided to nap at a motel along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A thief broke into the truck and made off with the painting, which eventually was recovered.

In his experience, Wittman said, art is typically shipped in semis or box trucks that, although unmarked, have special air-ride suspensions to absorb bumps.

There usually isn't a visible police presence, he said.

"Put it this way: They don't have flashing-light police escort."

In any move, the shipper has the huge edge over any would-be thief by keeping secret the gate, the route, and the hour of day.

Crating the art for safety in the event of a traffic accident or Postal Service weather ("Neither snow nor rain nor heat") might be the bigger part of the job.

That's a matter Barnes officials won't discuss either. But it came up in a 1993 court hearing when Barnes officials were seeking permission to extend the tour abroad.

Albert Barnes, who died in 1951, decreed in starting the foundation that his collection should never move an inch. A Montgomery County judge approved the tour, however, as a means of raising funds to upgrade the security and climate-control systems within the mansion, and to put the foundation on firmer financial footing.

Another judge later approved the permanent move to the site in Philadelphia.

J. Carter Brown, chief executive of the National Gallery of Art, testified in 1993 about what it took to move Barnes paintings to that museum in Washington.

La Danse was the biggest challenge.

"It was quite an undertaking," he said.

First came a special traveling frame to protect the edges of the three canvasses.

Then a "backing frame" was constructed so that, during the trip, the painting would always rest on padded corners.

"It was then wrapped in polyethylene and sealed, so that there was a relative-humidity micro-environment captured around the painting which would not allow any changes in the amount of moisture either coming in or going out," Carter said in court.

Next, a crate was specially constructed with plywood and aluminum slats, and with "another 21/2 inches of Styrofoam insulation on all sides."

The crate itself was painted and sealed with silicone to further protect against moisture.

Lastly, it was covered with two tarpaulins.

Carter said the whole package reminded him of "an unbreakable Thermos bottle."


Contact Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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