The Spirits in Orphans Court

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Judge Stanley Ott, president judge of the Montgomery County Orphans Court doesn’t strike me as a man who would have trouble sleeping. From what I’ve seen he’s not likely to be bothered by ghosts. But for the next few weeks they’re going to be bugging him as he has to decide the fate of a billion dollar art collection housed just a heart beat away from Philadelphia’s city limits in Lower Merion, Montgomery County.

Now there are five things in this story that are certain. The first is that Albert Barnes is dead. The eccentric pharmaceutical magnate died in 1951 after piecing together a gallery of the works of Renoir, Cezanne and Picasso that is one of the most valuable in the world.

The next thing that is certain is that in his will Barnes wrote strict rules for the use of the gallery. While it’s called a museum and offers hotel packages to tourists, Barnes wanted it solely used for art education with any profits benefiting Chester County’s Lincoln University.

The third certainty in this unholy cacophony of goodness or greed is that the Barnes Foundation is broke. The gallery that is not a museum engaged in a reckless zoning battle a decade ago that somehow turned racially charged and used up millions of Barnes’ bequest.

As Judge Ott sleeps on his decision three spirits are likely to intrude on his well deserved winter’s slumber.

The first will come in with a big bang, as its noise is ever present: the spirit of Philadelphia’s media. The last time Montgomery County’s Orphans Court got this much attention a broke, eccentric writer in London was having bad dreams at Christmas. From the radio gab head that claims Barnes’ will is inviolate and compares the collection to an unused minivan parked in his garage to the socialists at Philadelphia’s Daily News who seem to want to nationalize the collection, the judge has no shortage of public opinion weighing in on the case.

The next spirit is a big one that will probably bring cheese steaks with him. The former Mayor of Philadelphia turned Governor wants the collection housed in a new museum on the city’s famed parkway where it is likely to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and the millions of dollars they’ll spend every year.

The third spirit is kind and gentle. The princess of the Pew Charitable Trust, Rebecca Rimmel, with the generous help of cable magnate Gerry Lenfest has painted a magical future for the collection with a $150 million offer to make the Governor’s dream come true.

As for the rest of the certainties one is that is that the past, present and future of the Barnes collection has always been and always will be rife with controversy. No art collection of this magnitude in the world has such limited access and yet Barnes was very specific in his last testament. Changing that will could make for a dangerous precedent in the state. But Barnes’ money is gone and if the spirit of his wishes can’t be paid for then the wishes of those who can deserve consideration.

Making the Barnes’ decision would scare the hell out of most mortals. But its expected that someday early in the New Year Judge Ott will decide the fate of Pennsylvania’s most precious art collection. That’s the fifth certainty here. Based on his solid track record whatever the decision that comes out of Judge Stanley Ott’s court room it will be the right thing to do.

But what should really rattle our chains is that without the intervention of the Pew Foundation the management of the Barnes Foundation, allegedly adults, could have squabbled this whole priceless collection away when it should be the prized jewel in Pennsylvania. If that is what passes for leadership in this state then in the New Year let’s hope that “God blesses us one and all.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.
[email protected]