North wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco at the Detroit Institute of Art in Detroit. (Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Art)

When a federal judge Tuesday granted Detroit the power to shed its estimated $18 billion debt, that decision increasingly endangered the city’s prized art collection. But for art watchers, the surprising announcement came from the Detroit Free Press: The fair-market value of roughly 450 works owned by the city was estimated at much less than expected.

Some thought the Detroit Institute of Arts collection — which includes Van Gogh, Tintoretto and Rembrandt works, among others — could be worth upward of $8 billion, but city manager Kevyn Orr told the Free Press that Christie’s estimate for the works started below $1 billion. The high estimate was below $2 billion.

In a meeting with the Free Press editorial board and reporters after Judge Steven W. Rhodes issued his ruling, Orr said he “would like to find a way to monetize the Detroit Institute of Arts,” noting that he has not ruled out selling or auctioning some of the works. The city owns more than 65,000 works in the DIA, but because of donor restrictions, only a portion of those purchased with city funds were assessed. Orr hired Christie’s to appraise the works, and the official estimates are expected to become public this month.

In a statement, the DIA responded: “The museum’s collection is the result of more than a century of public and private charitable contributions for the benefit of the public. Protected by a charitable and public trust, the collection has survived several municipal fiscal crises and financial downturns, including the Great Depression, free from threats to its existence.

“The DIA therefore opposes the motion filed last week by certain city creditors to allow them to form a committee to oversee the valuation and sale or ‘monetization’ of the museum art collection to satisfy municipal obligations.”

Rhodes did not rule on whether he would allow the sale of the works, but he did create benchmarks to prepare for the sale of assets. In his ruling, he warned that selling city assets would not solve Detroit’s “inevitable financial future.”

Rhodes is allowing the city to cut employee pensions despite Michigan’s constitutional provision protecting them, so Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s opinion that the art could not be sold to pay creditors will probably not protect the DIA from the monetization of its treasures.