Correction:

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that only the approximately 3,300 city-owned works in the institute's collection may be sold. In fact, the city of Detroit owns all 65,000 pieces in the collection, but some may not be sold because of restrictions stipulated by the donor. This version has been corrected.

At Detroit Institute of Arts, fears of a fire sale

REBECCA COOK/REUTERS - A visitor at the Detroit Institute of Arts takes a picture of van Gogh’s self-portrait, whose estimated value is $60 million.

In the late 1920s, when the Soviets began selling some of the most valuable art in the Hermitage Museum to finance their centralized economic plan, a forward-thinking collector from a feisty country without a national art museum saw a big opportunity. The American industrialist Andrew Mellon wanted old masters to match his nation’s growing wealth and military prowess. Despite the depression, Mellon and a few other wealthy patrons knew this was a rare chance to buy up a great museum’s treasures. Mellon bought the “The Alba Madonna” by Raphael and 20 other works, which now hang at the National Gallery of Art. Armenian tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian bought “Mezzetin” by Jean Antoine Watteau, now in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Soviets bought tractors. We all know what happened to their grand economic plan.

The shameful sale at the Hermitage is a dark spot on one of the world’s great museums, but also an illustration of a timeless economic cycle that has more to do with realpolitik than art: after rapid industrialization comes wealth, sometimes hegemony, and in turn, an influx of the world’s treasures. Culture is always the pride of the polis. Nothing screams victory like van Eyck.

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Many of America’s old masters were acquired from the estates of great families in Germany, England and France during the century that ravaged Europe. Some of these works hang in the Detroit Institute of Arts, a reminder of the spoils of industrialization. So it’s bittersweet that the city of Detroit could be forced to sell off its artwork after filing for bankruptcy — bitter for America, not just Detroit — and sweet for prospective buyers in farflung places who, like Mellon, see an opportunity.

In short, it’s payback time. Because in the course of human events, countries that rise do fall, and the telltale sign of economic woe is when once-flush rulers start selling off the family jewels for bread money. When whispers of such sales begin, ambitious patrons come out of the woodwork and wait for the signal to buy back what they’ve lost or always coveted, sometimes out of love of nation or art, but often for the trophy.

“For some countries, it is only now where they’ve had the economic wherewithal at the national or individual level to contemplate buying art,” said Mukti Khaire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who researches art markets. “We see nationalistic motivations for buying antiquities more so than old masters or contemporary, but it’s hard to distinguish the motivations driving large purchases.”

The most recent example of a patriotic plundering was the 2007 sale of antiquities of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, when the museum de-accessioned more than 20 Chinese treasures, many of which headed back to their motherland. In addition, the museum auctioned the Hellenic bronze “Artemis and the Stag,” and raked in $28.6 million from an anonymous European buyer.

Should the worst-case scenario happen in Detroit, it would be on a much larger scale, with at least nine works valued at over $50 million, according to an independent appraisal by the Detroit Free Press. The city of Detroit owns all 65,000 pieces in the collection, but some may not be sold because of restrictions stipulated by the donor. While American collectors or museums might pay to keep the works in U.S. borders, they’d be competing against anonymous collectors in Europe, China, Russia and, likely, the Qatari royal family, which has purchased billions of dollars’ worth of art for their three new museums in Doha.

Many are optimistic that the sale won’t happen. The attorney general of Michigan, Bill Schuette, said in June that no piece in the collection could be sold. If that isn’t enough reassurance, the heads of major museums around the country have decried the possibility of sale. Even Christie’s, the auction house receiving $200,000 to appraise the works at the DIA, said, “There is no plan to sell any artwork, as has been stated on many occasions” in a statement.

Still, if ever there were a time for the sale of roughly 3,300 works to happen, it might be now. Rep. John Mica, (R-Fla.), known as one of Congress’s most vocal fine arts enthusiasts, said Congress is focused on the budget showdown.

“There’s no sympathy on the Hill for any kind of bailout on Detroit, even for something as valuable as their art collection,” Mica said. “I think the door is closed at federal level.”

But if a judge does rule that the art is fair game for creditors, some market experts are hopeful that the market would regulate itself. Indeed, collectors have reputations to uphold, and no dealer or auction house wants to be the pariah.

“The art market, despite being accused of having no regulation, has self-imposed controls for certain objects if the sale is taken to be unethical,” said Martin Gammon, a vice president of rival auction house Bonhams. “My general view is that it’s almost certainly not going to happen. The vast majority of respectable participants would refuse to participate in an auction on ethical grounds.”

But other experts note the Albright-Knox sale, where wealthy buyers from China flocked in to buy de-accessioned works.

“In situations where a museum is de-accessioning important pieces, boycotts are rare,” said Michael Plummer, principal of Artvest Partners, an art investment advisory firm in New York. “It’s a market driven by opportunism, and this would be an opportunity. While one collector might sit on their hands, another won’t.”

The DIA has expressed fears that an auction could happen. And it has made it clear that it won’t be just a loss for Detroit. Annmarie Erickson, the DIA’s chief financial officer, has said that she believes most of the major pieces would head to China, Russia or the Middle East.

But the art world is hoping it doesn’t get to that point. Gammon says in lieu of an auction, it’s possible that compromise could prevail.

“I could see some scenarios emerge where the museum authority in Qatar or another foreign entity seeks a partnership arrangement,” Gammon said. “It’s not a good situation, but it’s not the nuclear option. They could structure a partnership in a way that’s more palatable.”

It’s also possible American art collectors would respond to keep the works in this country. Some of the most expensive works purchased at auction have been sold to American collectors: Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen bought Picasso’s “Le Reve” for $155 million. Billionaire financier Leon Black bought one of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for $120 million. It’s possible that major museums could partner with wealthy buyers to keep the most expensive works in the United States.

“There’s an enormous amount of wealth in this country, and we have some of the most active buyers at auction,” Plummer said. “We shouldn’t immediately come to the conclusion that someone from overseas would buy these works.”

As with many auctions, we may never know who buys the art and where it goes unless the purchaser chooses to reveal herself or display it. The art could end up in a private home or safe, admired or ignored by people so removed from Detroit’s school tours or the residents who voted for tax hikes to prevent this dire situation.

The likely outcome, according to optimists and public officials, is that the DIA fire sale will never occur. That America will maintain her treasures despite bankruptcy. But even talk of this sale is a gentle reminder that economic folly in Detroit can have lasting effects. The worst case scenario isn’t just that the art would leave Detroit. It’s that it would arrive to fanfare in someone’s living room, until that victor squanders her spoils.

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