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Art Follows Money. Detroit Has None.


Like anyone following Detroit’s downfall, we had heard about the debate raging over whether or not to sell off the Detroit Institute of Arts’ vast art collection. We hadn’t been paying attention to the actual numbers in play. John Fund at National Review rounds up some estimates:

The Detroit Free Press asked New York and Michigan art dealers to evaluate just a few of the 60,000 items in the Institute’s collection. The experts said the 38 pieces they looked over would fetch a minimum of $2.5 billion on the market, with each of several pieces worth $100 million or more. That would go a long way toward relieving the city’s long-term debt burden of $17 billion.

Preserving art is important; preserving art collections usually isn’t. If anybody proposes burning the canvases in the Detroit museum to stay warm in the winter, we’re against it. But if it’s about selling works of art to make the tradeoff between pension cuts and city services less horrible, we wouldn’t rule it out. Some will object that sales of works from the museum risk important art works falling into private hands where scholars and the public can’t see them. That would be sad, but most private art collections move back to museums over time. The museum world views sales like this on par with the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, but unless the world’s art museums are prepared to raise the money to help Detroit’s retirees and citizens, we don’t see why their views should be given much weight.

Losing precious art works will be a blow to Detroit’s pride, but that’s what bankruptcy does: it humbles your pride.

There might be some less extreme ways to manage this: the city could, for example, issue art-backed bonds as a way to raise some cash. But the history of art is a history of migration. If people didn’t sell art, there wouldn’t be a lot of Old Master paintings in the US. Art follows money. It followed the money into Detroit and if it ends up following the money out of Detroit, well, that’s life.

[Detail from Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, one of the masterworks at the DIA.]

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  • Pete

    Love it.

    Let the well heeled progressives — most of whom have long since abandoned the tax jurisdiction of Detroit — help pay for the public sector monster that they had a major hand in creating with their precious art.

    Far better that then burdening U.S. taxpayers with the cost of Detroit’s folly.

    • bpuharic

      Does that include the 7 billion in tax subsidies to corporations? After all, you know how much progressives love corporate welfare. Just look at the recent agriculture bill passed by conservatives in congress, loaded with corporate welfare for the rich.

  • juliusstahl

    Selling off some art work would get Detroit solvent, but it won’t cure the rot.

    I am reading Charlie LeDuff’s excellent book”Detroit: An American Autopsy”. He is a reporter who was born in Detroit, left, and returned.

    His stories will make your hair stand on end. Everything is corrupt – police, judges, the car companies, and especially, municipal government.

    Highly recommended:

  • Anthony

    Selling assets to pay down debt is function of bankruptcy filing; yet, selling Detroit’s treasures (what few that may remain) makes the city less attractive and by implication open to more people (citizens) leaving – a vicious circle.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Nonsense. This is a city that cannot keep the streetlights lit, the ambulances running, or the police on the streets. Even the trains don’t run on time!…
      If you honestly believe that being forced to part with art treasures (however precious) is going to lower the attractiveness of a city that makes 1945 Berlin look like Shangri-la, I suggest that you are overlooking the obvious

      • Anthony

        One reply to both you and Thirdsyphon; perhaps to reconcile/justify predilection with analysis, my comment has been either misrepresented or misunderstood. Common knowledge Detroit has financial, structural, governing, etc., etc, problems (WRM has been writing about it regularly). Of course great Masterpieces of the renowned Detroit Institute of Art as well as other assests like Belle Isle property are part of ordered bankruptcy filing. My point however (and remains) is that selling cultural assests as well as other properties make Detroit less desirable for both present taxpayers and investors – thus possibly adding to exodus.

        Creative destruction can have that effect but that’s another disccusion – most importantly, art sell off very fractional amount ratio of debt reduction. Thanks guys, I done with this Quick Take.

    • Thirdsyphon

      I’m sure that there *are* some people in Detroit for whom the loss of this collection will be the last straw that convinces them to leave the city, but f1b0nacc1 is right. The vast majority of people who are fleeing Detroit are leaving because the

      • Anthony

        See reply to f1…. Thanks.

  • Thirdsyphon

    The MoMa sends me fundraising letters all the time, but if they were to send me one now seeking donations to bid for Van Gogh’s self portrait (or to pillage the Detroit collection in general), I’d be all for it. I’m not at all certain that the supporters of major museums aren’t up to the task of keeping at least some of this work available for the public to enjoy.

    • f1b0nacc1

      I share your sentiments, but let me suggest that the use of the phrase ‘pillage’ is inappropriate here. Perhaps ‘rescue’ may be a better choice?
      Given the level of ineptitude and corruption present at just about every aspect of Detroit’s municipal government, how long is it before some of these treasures ‘disappear’, or are damaged or detroyed?
      They are in capable of performing even the simplest functions of government or administration, best put these treasures in the hands of adults who will preserve them. To me, that is rescue, not pillage

      • Thirdsyphon

        You may be right. From the point of view of the Detroit museum-going public, the loss of the art that many of them grew up with is apt to feel like piracy no matter where the pieces are going, but it hadn’t occurred to me until you mentioned it that the city’s ongoing collapse might soon make the Detroit Museum a target for *actual* pillaging. One way or another, it seems that keeping their art where it is just isn’t on the menu for Detroit.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Particularly if this art ended up in the hands of private collectors (my preferred scenario), perhaps some sort of deal might be arranged to keep it on display in Detroit for some portion of each year going forward. I would worry, however that as long as Detroit has pretty much anything of value in its posession (or custody) that it is likely to be insecure at best…

          • Thirdsyphon

            I’m not a fan of truly important art going to private collectors. I’ve heard a few too many stories about pieces in private hands being accidentally damaged or subjected to unecessary risks (although granted this can and does sometimes happen to art in the custody of museums). My own preferred solution would be for a consortium of museums in other cities to buy the Detroit museum outright, and put Detroit’s art collction into national circulation in exchange for pieces from their own. Whatever happens, I think the whole collection should be digitally photographed and even 3D mapped to the fullest extent possible before it gets sold.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I have always believed that ownership breeds responsibility, hence ‘truly important’ art is likely to be safer in private collections, where the owners have an immediate incentive to preserve it. I have worked with quite a few museums, and have a very, very dim view of their administrations.
            Your point about making sure that any art is scanned and all steps be taken to preserve it before its sale is an excellent one, and should be implemented (on a voluntary basis, of course) for all art sales in the future. A private organization (perhaps a cooperative of museums and private collectors?) could easily maintain the necessary databases, to the overwhelming benefit of the public at large, not to mention future buyers who might wish to validate their purchases.

          • Thirdsyphon

            Speaking of private collectors, it occurs to me that a lot of

          • f1b0nacc1

            An interesting point. It might be even more interesting to see what a bankruptcy court would have to say about any attempt to sell off that art. I see you mention in another thread that you believe the courts woudln’t abridge a reverter clause designed to circumvent this, and I must say that I agree. The question then becomes, how many of these gifts fall into that category?

          • Thirdsyphon

            Over time, museums have become increasingly resistant to accepting donations that come with strings attached, but that’s often waived if they want a piece badly enough. All things being equal, my guess is that we’ll find that conditional grants are heavily concentrated among the oldest and/or most valuable items in the DIA’s collection.


    I think you misunderstand bankruptcy law. All the bonds and other obligations Detroit has issued ARE art-backed bonds. When there is insufficient cash flow to repay obligations, assets get sold off in an attempt to keep creditors as whole as possible. There is no exemption for billion dollar art collections in the bankruptcy code. If Detroit didn’t want to put its art at risk it shouldn’t have spent more money then it could ever repay. Choosing to save art over lives is immoral and unconscionable.

    • Thirdsyphon

      True, but a lot of these assets might have been gifted to the DIA subject to conditions and restrictions imposed by the original donors that would prevent them from being sold to satisfy the city’s creditors. Regardless of Detroit’s fiscal imprudence in the intervening years, those conditions and restrictions would still be in effect, and not subject to being abridged by a Federal bankruptcy court.

  • USNK2

    The NYT had reported three of Detroit’s suburban counties had already passed a property-tax surcharge specifically to fund the Institute of Art’s annual operating budget.
    I have no doubt that the DIA, can be transformed from being city-owned into the kind of museum structure that can preserve what is considered one of the ten best encyclopedic art museums in America, by the people who love DIA, even if they are suburban.
    Just ask Tuscaloosa, Alabama how they felt when their local Warner art museum, the best private collection of American art, was sold by the son of Jack Warner the collector, literally sold off in an overnight disappearing act.

  • Vaj Goblin

    If only Detroit could find a way to tax illiteracy.

    • Tom Servo

      Two words: Lottery Tickets.

  • iconoclast

    Art-backed bonds, that’s a laugh. Just would be dumb enough to trust the city to pay the bonds or not to weasel out of relinquishing the artwork in the 100% chance of a default?

    Detroit will be forced to sell the artwork for one simple reason–no one will lend the city money unless current creditors are paid off. And if it comes down to paying off the over compensated vultures their public pensions or holding onto artwork I will bet that the artwork will come in a distant second.

  • JJ_Chester

    The good news is that a bankruptcy master could compel the liquidation of this artwork (nonperforming assets) for the benefit of secured creditors and/or pension obligations. This is a great find.
    Anybody objecting to the sale of such assets is doing so at the expense or the City’s pensioners.

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