A very private art collection goes public: Patrick Cockburn on the world's first chance to savour priceless paintings

DR Albert C Barnes, owner of one of the finest art collections in the world, so disliked the art establishment that he once had John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and a polio victim, physically thrown out of the Barnes gallery in Philadelphia.

When Dr Barnes died in 1951, he willed that his dollars 3bn ( pounds 2bn) collection, which includes 180 paintings by Renoir, 69 by Cezanne, 60 by Matisse, 44 by Picasso and seven by Van Gogh, should never leave the limestone chateau he had built to house them in Merion Station, an inaccessible suburb of Philadelphia. Here the 2,000 paintings he bought with the profits from his silver nitrate business (a pharmaceutical subcontractor) were on display for two-and-a-half days a week. The only reproductions allowed were in black and white, of poor quality and only for use in scholarly publications. No museum was to have access to the collection.

Now, as the result of a court case, 80 of the paintings will be shown to the world on an international tour that will bring them to Washington, Paris and Tokyo. The pictures on show will include Matisse's 'The Joy of Life', painted in 1906, and Cezanne's 'Card Players', one of his finest works. Other paintings to be released from Merion Station for the first time are Seurat's 'Models' of 1888 and Matisse's earliest version of 'The Dance', commissioned by Dr Barnes for the main hall of his foundation.

The tour will be the first for the Barnes collection; it may also be the last. The only reason it is taking place is that Dr Barnes did not leave enough money to maintain his museum. The president of the Barnes Foundation, Richard Glanton, says the tour will raise dollars 7m to bring the museum up to modern standards. The Musee d'Orsay in Paris is expected to pay dollars 2.5m for the rights to show the collection and the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo dollars 4.5m.

The terms of Dr Barnes's will, after he was killed in a car crash 40 years ago, prevented paintings from leaving Merion or being reproduced in colour. It even determined the precise wall on which each painting was to hang in the gallery. Only the surname of the artist was to be noted, without date or title.

Originally Mr Glanton wanted to sell some paintings to raise money, but last year a Pennsylvania court decided that a tour was the best way to restore the buildings where the Barnes collection was housed. Mr Glanton himself came under attack for his plans for reconstruction. Dr Barnes had originally given control of the foundation to Lincoln College, a black liberal arts university in Pennsylvania. He had taught at Lincoln, collected paintings by American blacks and supported the Harlem Renaissance. In contrast Mr Glanton, a Republican corporate lawyer who co-chaired George Bush's campaign in 1988, was attacked for being an archetypal establishment figure of the kind Dr Barnes disliked most.

The trustees who now control the Barnes collection are also involved in litigation with their predecessors. When Dr Barnes died, his foundation was run for the following 30 years by the De Mazia Trust, set up by Violette de Mazia, a friend and reputed mistress of Dr Barnes, who shared his ideas on art. She said the collection was arranged 'to excite the student's curiosity as to why these apparently disparate objects are placed in the same room, at times on the same wall'.

The Barnes collection is being closed for two years while the tour takes place, though its classes on the history and philosophy of art will continue. A chirpy recorded voice advertises its first colour catalogue. 'Please look for it at your local bookstore,' it says. After half a century, idiosyncratic isolation is being replaced by US art gallery sales patter.

(Photograph omitted)

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