‘Would Paris sell the Mona Lisa?’ New fears that Detroit will sell its treasures

Visitors at the Detroit Institute of Arts museum look at the work by famed muralist Diego Rivera in Detroit, Michigan June 2, 2013.
Visitors at the Detroit Institute of Arts museum look at the work by famed muralist Diego Rivera in Detroit, Michigan June 2, 2013.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Looking for a way out of its nearly $18 billion debt, bankrupt Detroit wants to put a dollar value on its priceless art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Christie’s Appraisals Inc. confirmed they were hired by the city’s emergency manager to appraise a portion of the DIA, fanning fears of a potential sale to help pay the city’s creditors.

The DIA has works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, and Caravaggio, among others; experts consulted by the Detroit Free Press valued the collection at $2.5 billion, at least. The city hasn’t said it will sell the art–but hasn’t taken the idea off the table, either. Assessing the worth of the collection is “an integral part of the restructuring process,” Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said in a statement.

Christie’s will also advise Detroit on possible non-sale alternatives for the artworks.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Shuette ruled in June that the DIA works are held “in charitable trust” and cannot be sold to pay off Detroit’s debt. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes is in charge of determining whether the city is eligible for bankruptcy.

Museum officials and members of the art community warn of the ripple effect of getting rid of masterpieces. “It would set a terrible precedent,” said Dorsey Waxter, president of the Art Dealers Association of America.

“Art dealers strive to see that an artist’s legacy is protected for posterity by placing works in museum collections. This would be a tremendous violation of the artists and their works that dealers try to preserve,” Waxter told msnbc. “A sell-off from the DIA would be cutting out the heart of the city, as the DIA has one of the most outstanding collections in this country.”

She added, “Would Paris sell the Mona Lisa?”

“Museums, cultural institutions and non-profits play a critical role in our society and they need to be supported,” said Christopher Vroom, a co-founder of ARTSPACE.com, an online marketplace for fine art, and an avid contemporary art collector. He told msnbc the “arts community need to be concerned because the situation at the DIA reflects the consequence of inadequate support for cultural institutions around the country.”

New York City-based auction house Christie’s played down its role, saying appraising the collections of individuals or corporations is a normal part of their job.

“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 said in a written statement. The company said they want to continue working with the DIA and the city “to find alternatives to selling that would still provide the city with needed revenue.”

Getting rid of masterpieces is “not a high priority,” Emergency Manager Orr said during a recent interview with Reuters.

“Once we find out what we’re talking about, that’ll probably lead the discussion about what we can and can’t do,” he said. “I’m not being flippant, I’m just being very careful because every time I say something about the DIA it’s another three weeks of, ‘Orr the Luddite is getting ready to sell our family jewels.’” A decision could come by mid-October, when Christie’s finishes its analysis.

A non-profit group operates the museum. Plus, a “tax millage vote” by three nearby counties adds another layer of complexity: residents agreed to pay higher property taxes to help support the museum (and in return, free entry). And many of the Institute’s pieces were donated with the understanding that they would stay in the museum’s collection in perpetuity.

DIA’s chief operating officer Annmarie Erickson admitted that if a sale did occur, the controversy around the works’ ownership would probably not deter buyers. “Some people will stay away, but there will always be a buyer for an excellent work of art,” she told msnbc. “If it comes to that point, we will vigorously defend this collection.”

The community has rallied around the museum. July attendance figures were more than double those from the previous year, said the museum.

Museum officials said they are cooperating with Christie’s and city officials. Erickson said they are “closely monitoring the process.”

“It’s important to remember we have never seen a municipal bankruptcy of this scale before and although the museum is getting a lot of attention, we are a small cog in this process,” Erickson told msnbc. “Our ultimate goal is that the process move forward smoothly, quickly and intelligently. And that we reach a good resolution for the museum and the city.”