Multi-Million Detroit Art Collection Is Tainted If Sold
Policy + Politics

Multi-Million Detroit Art Collection Is Tainted If Sold

Rebecca Cook

For decades, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts have been amused, inspired and perhaps warned of the dangers of overindulgence by the peasant revelers of 16th century painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Now, as a result of Detroit's bankruptcy filing, "The Wedding Dance," considered priceless by lovers of the world-famous city collection, has a price tag of $100 million to $200 million, according to a Christie's auction house report made public on Thursday.

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The New York-based auction house, in an audit of some of the museum's best-known pieces that was released Thursday, estimated the fair market value of 1,741 pieces bought with city funds over the years as between $454 million to $867 million. The valuation was requested by city Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr shortly before the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

For art and museum lovers, the valuation is a surreal exercise - putting a price on cultural resources they believe should never be sold.

Orr has indicated he has no intention to sell the art. Rather, he earlier asked Christie's for other options and was told there were several, including possibly using the art as collateral for a loan. Even so, the potential for an outright sale cannot be ruled out in an unpredictable municipal bankruptcy proceeding.

Lee Rosenbaum, author of the CultureGrrl art blog, called the valuation report "stomach-turning." "We can only hope that any speculation about how much these works might bring on the open market is a mere academic exercise and that the cost of Christie's problematic appraisal will prove to be a waste of scarce taxpayer dollars," Rosebaum wrote on her blog on Thursday.

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Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group, said Thursday that he found Christie's estimates "more or less correct" as fair market valuations. But he hated the idea of it. "I feel monetizing this art in this way is damaging to the museum, damaging to the city and damaging to the art," said Levin. "It's a no-win situation. It's horrid."

Levin said the valuation recalled Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

The holdings appraised by Christie's represent only about 5 percent of the museum's full collection. Christie's said 11 pieces on display at the museum account for 75 percent of the appraised value.

The museum declined comment on the appraisal, but has said in the past that it continues to maintain its position that the collection "is a cultural resource, not a municipal asset."

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The Bruegel painting has the highest price. Other highly valued pieces include a self-portrait of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, in a straw hat, valued at between $80 million and $150 million, and Rembrandt's "The Visitation," valued at between $50 million and $90 million.

Richard Feigen, a dealer and collector who specializes in European paintings, found the valuations "relatively valueless" since the ranges are so wide. He said the work could be considered tainted in the art world, which would affect their value. "The idea of selling them is in my view obscene," said Feigen. "From my standpoint, I'd have nothing to do with them."

D. Carroll Joynes, senior research fellow at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, found the prices "in the ballpark," since such works come on the market so rarely. But Joynes thinks the idea of selling art treasures because of a city's financial problems could make people rethink whether to donate art to museums. "It fundamentally undercuts the assurance that things can't be pillaged when things get a little rough," said Joynes.

Christie's proposed alternatives to outright sale include leasing the art to a partner museum, selling art to a philanthropist who would permanently lend it back to the museum, or the option of using the art as collateral. A federal judge acting as chief mediator in the bankruptcy case has proposed that a group of non-profit foundations could create a fund to protect the museum's city-owned art.

With additional reporting by Joseph Lichterman of Reuters in Detroit.