Detroit's Emergency Manager Could Sell The City's Art Collection

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr asked Christie's auction house to come in and appraise the city-owned collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Orr acknowledged on Monday

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Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr asked Christie's auction house to come in and appraise the city-owned collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Orr acknowledged on Monday. That appraisal made art news headlines for weeks after Detroit filed for bankruptcy, so the news today solves something of a mystery as to why the auction house came to the city in the first place. But its doubtful that very many people are heartened by it.

Orr will pay Christie's $200,000 to appraise the work at the behest of creditors, which may or may not result in a sale. The appraisal began in June and should be done by October. Detroit is currently $18 billion in debt, including to city pensioners. The world-class DIA art collection is estimated to be worth billions, as the Detroit Free Press explains:

Nearly 40 of the museum’s most important works carry an estimated value of $2.5 billion, according to experts consulted by the Free Press. Paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Bruegel and others carried individual estimates of $50 million to $100 million or more.

Orr defended the move by downplaying the significance of the DIA collection itself in his wider bankruptcy plans, adding that "There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art. This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets, is an integral part of the restructuring process." But the Detroit News explains that the city's creditors have previously asked about the collection specifically after facing the prospect of getting 10 cents on the dollar back of what the city owes. So it might be hard to convince them to stay away from DIA. While the creditors themselves don't get to force the handover of city assets, the Free Press explains, the bankruptcy judge in the case can refuse to accept a deal if he thinks it's hiding some assets. 

Detroit-area residents (presumably, not the creditors) are understandably unhappy: 

Among art critics, the issue's been contentious, with most coming down on DIA's side — the museum hired their own bankruptcy lawyers and are putting together a case against the potential sale of the works.  Modern Art Notes's Tyler Green: 

and Hyperallergic's Hrag Vartanian: 

for example, came out strongly against Christie's involvement in the appraisal at the time. Meanwhile, the National Review's John Fund was for the sale, as was (originally) longtime New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. But Schjeldahl, after taking considerable flack from fellow critics, has since changed his mind. He wrote: 

Finally, some acute attacks have shown me the indefensibility of my position. For example, from a blogger, would I “suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt”? The principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane, and it should be sacred.

Christie's has taken some particularly harsh criticism for their presence at DIA, and the company finally released a statement on Monday acknowledging what's going on:

We confirm that Christie’s Appraisals Inc. was asked and has entered into an agreement to appraise a portion of the City owned collection at the Detroit Institute of Art.  In addition we will also assist and advise on how to realize value for the City while leaving the art in the City’s ownership...At Christie's, we are passionate about art and understand the importance of the contribution that institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts offer to the community and the world at large.  We are proud of our long history of support to museums, including the DIA.  We want to continue to focus our efforts on being a positive force in both the interests of the City of Detroit and its arts community, including working with our fellow arts professionals at the DIA and with the City to find alternatives to selling that would still provide the City with needed revenue.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.