On July 18, Detroit, Michigan became the largest city in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy. The once mighty industrial metropolis has been on a constant downslide for decades. In 1960, it was the fourth most populous city in the country with more than 3 million residents. But, as of the 2010 census, its population had dropped to approximately 714,000. Detroit now has more than $18 billion in outstanding debts. Scores of traffic lights aren’t functioning; police take up to an hour to respond to 911 calls; pot holes dot the urban landscape; bodies are piling up in the morgue waiting for autopsies; and retired city workers, such as police officers and firefighters, may see cuts in their pension benefits.
But, just when we thought things couldn’t worsen, Detroit’s vast art collection has fallen into the sights of those seeking a resolution to the city’s financial woes. Detroit’s Institute of Art Museum is ranked as one of the ten best in North America and its roughly 60,000 pieces are valued at approximately $1 billion. They include works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso. Diego Rivera’s 27-panel fresco “Detroit Industry,” a tribute to the city’s labor force in the 1930s, occupies a garden court. Rivera considered it his most successful work, even if contemporary politicians viewed it as homage to communism.
“The DIA is among the top 10 museums in the United States in terms of the breadth and depth of its permanent collection,” said Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art; adding that the $1 billion estimate “doesn’t seem implausible.”
Christie’s International, the renowned auction conglomerate, recently sent a couple of its staff members to Detroit on a preliminary scavenger hunt.
“Christie’s called us and said they’re sending two people,” said Pamela Marcil, a museum spokeswoman. “We don’t know who contacted Christie’s.”
“The creditors have said everything is on the table,” noted Bruce Babiarz, a spokesman for the Detroit Police and Fire Department.
Although an independent, non-profit organization operates the museum, the city of Detroit owns the land, the building and the art. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has asked creditors to accept less than 20 cents on the dollar.
That Detroit has fallen into such morbid fiduciary disarray that it has to sell off its artistic treasures like used clothes at a garage sale is not just disheartening – as some have denounced it – but irresponsible. They might as well put it on Ebay. If such a sale does take place, it would be unprecedented in art history. And, it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.
“It could take at least a couple of years to sort this out,” said Thomas Kline, a Washington attorney who specializes in art law. He also warned, “There is certainly a possibility for multiple lawsuits concerning the right to sell art to pay the creditors.”
So, if Detroit does sell off all that artwork, then what? The DIA will end up as just another empty building in a city already littered with them. Detroit has until March 1, 2014 to file a comprehensive reorganization plan.