The Washington Post

In a June 13, 2013 photo, Gladioli by Monet is displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. In a quest to balance the budget in cash-strapped Detroit, the city's emergency manager is proposing a controversial idea: sell the city's art. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

Some lawmakers and arts leaders have been vowing to protect one of Detroit’s most valuable assets: its art, which is estimated to be worth billions. But without a law prohibiting the sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, it is unclear whether the city can shield the works from creditors now that it has filed for bankruptcy.

In May, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, requested an inventory of the DIA’s collection, causing concern among arts leaders that the works could be sold if the city filed for bankruptcy. In June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the city’s art could not be sold to pay off its estimated $19 billion in debt, citing the state’s charitable trust law.

The state Senate recently passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of the city’s art unless sold to a comparable institution to further the museum’s core mission. But the bill has yet to become law, and the museum has hired attorneys to advise it on protecting the art.

“I’m obviously concerned,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “We thought that this was behind us in terms of the collection at the DIA, but I’m not an attorney so I don’t know what could happen. This has never happened before.”

The collection is undoubtedly valuable. Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, has called it one of the most valuable in the Western Hemisphere. An independent assessment by the Detroit Free Press estimated that the bulk of the collection could be worth $2.5 billion, although the exact value is impossible to determine because it is rare for so many valuable works to hit the auction block. The DIA has more than 60,000 works spanning centuries, with nearly 90 percent of the pieces in storage.

According to the appraisals by the Free Press, the most valuable paintings in the collection include Tintoretto’s “The Dreams of Men” from the 16th century, valued at $100 million, and Matisse’s “The Window,” valued at $150 million.

Museum officials on Thursday vowed to monitor the situation. “We remain committed to our position that the Detroit Institute of Arts and the City of Detroit hold the DIA’s collection in trust for the public and we stand by our charge to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of all Michigan residents,” the museum said in a statement.

Selling a museum’s permanent collection — or deaccessioning art — is frowned upon by the American Alliance of Museums, which has a code of ethics that requires that works be sold only “for the advancement of the museum’s mission,” not for operating costs. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington recently deaccessioned 25 carpets in storage that did not meet the museum’s core mission, raising more than $40 million for its endowment.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.



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