On the night of Sept. 9, 1994, Judge Louis D. Stefan of Montgomery County Orphans' Court was killed in a New Jersey automobile accident. His death, not long after he approved a controversial plan to allow the Barnes Foundation in Merion to send 83 paintings on a world tour, catapulted Judge Stanley R. Ott into the burgeoning thickets of Barnes litigation.
Because founder and collector Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951, had left a highly restrictive trust indenture governing foundation operations, Ott was called on to consider almost everything the Barnes wanted to do.
The trust indenture barred selling, moving, or lending pictures. It governed the foundation's hours of operation, its investment policy, the appointment of its board of trustees. It clearly states that the foundation is an educational organization, but is vague about what that means. It says the foundation operated in Merion - but did it mean in perpetuity?
All these issues began to come before the court in 1990 as foundation officials sought to shore up finances, repair buildings and grounds, and assume a more visible public profile. All were fielded by Ott, including the momentous 2002 petition to move the Barnes gallery to Philadelphia.
Ott held weeks of hearings on the move, which was backed by three big foundations and major politicians. He examined cartloads of documents and demanded detailed plans and projections. He chastised deputy attorney general Lawrence Barth in 2003 for seeming to be uncritically "cheerleading" for the foundation's plans.
That said, in 2004 Ott ruled that the foundation's finances were so fragile, its prospects for long-term stability in Merion so poor, that Philadelphia offered a plausible, if risky, future. "Our conclusion that the foundation should prevail [and move] does not mean all doubts about the viability of its plans have been allayed," he wrote. "Of serious concerns are its fund-raising goals."
"My sense of Ott is that he proceeded in a thoughtful, careful, deliberate fashion," said Bruce H. Mann, an expert on trusts at Harvard Law School. "I've never read anything in his opinions that indicated there was any bending to political pressures."