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.]