A couple looks at a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) on Sept. 3, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.
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Christie’s gives prelim estimate on DIA collection

Christie’s auction house released a preliminary report Wednesday putting a dollar amount on the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) prized collection, potentially in danger of being sold to pay down the city’s monster debt.

The New York-based firm appraised 2,781 works owned or partially-owned by the city at a fair market value ranging between $452 and $866 million –a fraction of the $18 billion owed to Detroit’s creditors. Eleven works on display in the galleries make up 75% of the total estimate of the appraised collection.

Custody of museum treasures – which include masterpieces from Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet,  Caravaggio, and Warhol –could become a contested issue in bankruptcy court. On Tuesday, a federal judge gave the green light for Detroit to proceed with its historic Chapter 9 filing, the first of its kind for a major U.S. city.

“As this process moves forward, we trust our findings will provide a useful foundation for the City to engage in further discussion with the creditors and the DIA, and for all parties involved to make informed decisions about best use of the City’s assets,” said Doug Woodham, President of Christie’s Americas, in a statement. “We understand that a valuation of all the City’s assets (extending well beyond the art) is one of many steps that will be necessary for the legal system to reach a conclusion about the best long term solution for the citizens of Detroit.”

Christie’s, hired by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr in August to evaluate its assets, will submit its full report during the week of December 16. It will also include five possible alternatives to selling the art, yet still allow the city to make money off the collection.

The legal issues are as messy as a Jackson Pollack splatter painting.

A non-profit group runs the DIA, but the city owns most of the artwork and the building itself. Under a 2012 “tax millage” vote, voters in three suburban counties in Detroit agreed to higher property taxes in exchange for free admission, so those counties also claim a voice in the process.

And in June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Shuette ruled that the DIA works are held “in charitable trust” for the people of the state to enjoy.

The Detroit Institute of Arts – backed by an outraged art community – disputes the city’s authority to touch their artwork.

“The DIA continues to maintain its position that the museum collection is a cultural resource, not a municipal asset, and consequently has no comment on the preliminary evaluation report issued by Christie’s in response to the request from the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit,” the DIA said in a statement to msnbc on Wednesday. “The DIA remains hopeful that the Emergency Manager will, consistent with the City’s fiduciary duty as a public trustee, continue to protect the Museum and the collection and oppose any attempts to force a sale, despite the position that some creditors have taken in a recent bankruptcy court filing.”

The DIA warned it will fight to protect Detroit’s crown jewels: “If the collection is jeopardized, the DIA remains committed to taking appropriate action to preserve this cultural birthright for future generations.”

The turmoil faced by the museum hasn’t been bad for business; ticket sales have way been up. Over the summer, attendance more than doubled from the previous year.

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Christie's gives prelim estimate on DIA collection