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Detroit One Step Closer to Selling Its Art Collection

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Masterpieces like this work by Fra Angelico are at risk if Detroit liquidates its art collection

Masterpieces like this work by Fra Angelico are at risk if Detroit liquidates its art collection

The city of Detroit has reportedly hired auction superpower Christie’s to appraise the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). This is another step following the decision by Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to declare bankruptcy, announced last month.

Some have speculated that the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts could be auctioned off to help close the gap between the city’s reported $380 million budget deficit. While there are many priceless works housed in the collection, even extensive sales of work by Van Gogh, Bruegel and other masters is likely a drop in the bucket of Detroit’s estimated $20 billion in long-term debt.

In a press release, Orr stated that the collection would not be sold, and that the appraisal is simply a required step in the process of declaring for bankruptcy. “There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art,” the release reads. “This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets (…) is a step the city must take to reach resolutions with its creditors.”

The DIA has also referred to a formal opinion by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette that stated the collection cannot legally be sold. Detroit does not technically own the work and it is instead being held in a charitable trust established for Michigan residents. “The art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the city of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection can thus be sold, conveyed or transferred to satisfy City debts or obligations,” Schuette wrote.

While Orr and the city of Detroit are adamant in their stance that the work will not be sold, many across the art world are watching nervously and fearing the worst. The collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts — assembled during far more prosperous times in Detroit’s history — houses countless priceless works of art. Should desperate times result in desperate measures, the greatest fear is that private collectors, utilizing capital that dwarfs even the wealthiest of museum endowments, could purchase important works and take them out of public view.

In an opinion piece for the New Yorker, writer John Cassidy made the case that Detroit should get a bailout, similar to those given to the auto industry and financial institutions in recent years. Such intervention by the Federal Government would almost certainly preserve the museum’s collection and keep important work, like and Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals available to the viewing public.

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