Can and will works be sold to help protect the failing city
The talk of the art world this month has been the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts, which by some accounts is now on the chopping block due to the former industrial powerhouse's recent bankruptcy filing. Although the provisions of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy technically shield the city from being forced to sell any asset, a mixture of alarmism and rational fear of a populist campaign—to find revenue wherever possible to pay pensioners and other creditors—has led a wide array of observers to wonder how much money, exactly, could be squeezed out of the encyclopedic museum's vast holdings. And no wonder: there's an abundance of riches in that neoclassical art piggybank.
Reports have widely pegged the DIA's collection as worth about $2 billion, but that is almost certainly undervalued—the Detroit Free Press has paneled a group of experts who suggest that 38 paintings, including major works by van Gogh, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Breugel, van Eyck, and others would be worth about $2.5 billion on their own. Christie's quietly visited the museum to appraise the collection in June, but even seasoned experts may not be able to fully anticipate how much a masterpiece like van Gogh's Self-Portrait With Straw Hat could achieve at auction in these superheated days of ever more gargantuan record sales. Also, how does one value an irreplaceable classic of American painting like John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark?
What's certain, though, is that if any of these works were to be sold, it would vastly and definitively reduce the museum's ability to function, sapping morale in the city's art community, strongly discouraging patronage and donations, and sparking a likely exodus of its remaining stalwart administrators.
DIA's director, Graham Beal, says that "if there are any attempts made to sell parts of the collection, we will fight it with all legal means at our disposal." That prospect, however, he insists is strictly academic. This Thursday, he previewed an exhibition of work by Diego Rivera that he plans to put on view at the museum two years from now, sanguinely saying, "We think it's going to be business as usual in 2015."