Detroit’s Plan to Sell City Art Faces Resistance

By Mary Silver, Epoch Times
December 6, 2013 Updated: December 6, 2013

Works in the Detroit Institute of Arts could be sold to raise money to pay creditors in the city’s bankruptcy, but many, including the museum, oppose the idea. 

Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr asked New York auction house Christie’s to appraise city-purchased pieces in Detroit’s collection, which is among the best in the country with paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and Vincent van Gogh.

Christie’s appraised the works between $450 million and $870 million. In its agreement with Detroit, Christie’s refused to testify in any future lawsuits.

The threat to the collection, which some experts speculate could be worth more than $2 billion, has alarmed museum and nonprofit officials across the country. 

“In the world of the great museums, this is unprecedented as far as I know,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “It just doesn’t happen.” 

He added: “Our tradition in this country is that artworks are held in trust for the public good, and you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say the works are held in trust until we decide they’re an asset, and we need to sell them. If it worked that way, no one would ever give works to museums, and we wouldn’t have the great collections.”

Museum Opposes Sales

The day the Christie’s appraisal was released, the museum issued a statement opposing any sales, and said it had made it through several fiscal crises, including the Great Depression, without being dismantled.

“The museum’s collection is the result of more than a century of public and private charitable contributions for the benefit of the public,” according to a statement from the museum.

The museum stated that it agrees with the Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuett’s opinion that Detroit holds the art collection in trust and cannot use it to satisfy city obligations.

City Workers

At the same time, some city workers, whose pensions are threatened, have said the museum should help reduce Detroit’s debts. 

“Why are just the city workers taking cuts?” said Charles Rittenhouse, 57, a mechanic on the city’s garbage trucks. “They should do cuts across the board. I have no problem with them selling some of the art. I can’t see selling all of it. What is a piece of art compared to me feeding my family? To my well being? And just think about the older people. A lot of us are broken down from our jobs.”

Christie’s said in a statement that it proposes five ways to raise money from the art without selling it. Those proposals will be given to Orr and made public Dec. 16.

A judge cleared the way for the city to go bankrupt Dec. 3, but the decision is certain to be appealed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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