Bankrupt Detroit Assesses its Art Treasures

There are people in and around the Motor City asking if Paris would sell the Mona Lisa.

Ever since Detroit entered the largest ever U. S. Municipal bankruptcy on July 18th, its business has become the topic of not only the financial world, but the cultural world as well… and not just within the borders of this country, but throughout the world. That is because Detroit is home to the acclaimed Detroit Institute of Arts which houses a collection of heretofore considered “priceless” works of art.

With its 18 billion dollar debt, Detroit needs to know the current value, of all its assets; that’s parking garages, airport, tunnel, historic fort, city parks, and the DIA art collection. The job of attaching a price to the priceless has fallen onto Detroit’s newly appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who has in turn hired the New York based Christie’s Appraisals Inc., a task that will be completed in the next few months. Orr has already hired other consultants to appraise other city assets.

Although the Detroit Institute of Arts is run by an independent non-profit organization, the city owns the property and much of the art. The fate of those works may in fact be decided by the U.S. bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes who is handling the case.

The collection includes works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Caravaggio, Warhol, Bruegel and Poussin among others.

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It is particularly difficult to assess the collections true value since many of the pieces were gifts from patrons to the museum. Individual pieces could be worth in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on who you ask. That’s where Christie’s of New York comes in, but the reality is that the ultimate decider of value could very well be the prevailing bidder at a public auction. The best that Christie’s can offer, for its $200,000.00 fee, is an educated guess based on its experience in the art auction world, hardly an exact science.

Art experts have expressed concern that the mass sale of such a large collection could flood the global art market, depressing values of collections world-wide.  Annmarie Erickson, COO of DIA said of the collection, “We don’t view it as a salable asset.” The museum has retained counsel to represent it before the bankruptcy court.

The notion of a fire sale of Detroit’s art ignited public outcry and prompted Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to issue a ruling, in June, that the collection is held by a public trust and can’t be sold to satisfy creditors. However, Schuette’s ruling may have no influence in bankruptcy court.

Christine Anagnos, Executive Director of the Association of Art Museum Directors said “a museum’s collection is held in public trust” it’s a “bedrock principle” of the field. “Sale of works from a museum collection to provide funds for any purpose other than strengthening the collection would be a serious breach of the nationally recognized standards for the field and would be of deep concern,” Anagnos told MSNBC.

The art community is watching with concern that such a breach of the museum honor code could someday prompt other cities to take similar action in desperate times.  There are plenty of interested parties who will be keeping their eyes on the Detroit Bankruptcy case. Perhaps some clever lawyer or consultants can come up with non-sale alternatives for the artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts, so the city in particular and the art world at large can breathe a “collective” sigh of relief.

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