Art Pillage Pondered to Pay Detroit Debt

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has joined the Detroit Institute of Arts in opposing any plan for the Michigan city to sell billions of dollars of museum masterpieces to plug a deficit.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are aghast that Detroit would pillage its patrimony to cover mounting municipal debt.

“Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table,” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director and chief executive, said in a statement.

“There’s no question the collection is worth into the billions of dollars,” said New York dealer Richard Feigen.

Amid declining population and rising unemployment, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr called the city “clearly insolvent” in a May 12 report.

With an accumulated deficit of $327 million as of June 2012 and $15 billion in pension and other obligations, the city “will evaluate all options,” including selling “non-core assets,” he said.

Inventory Requested

DIA Chief Operating Officer Annmarie Erickson said that Orr requested the museum’s inventory.

“We have been informed that he is looking at the Detroit Institute of Arts collection,” she said in a telephone interview.

Orr has no plan sell the art, or any of the city’s assets, said his spokesman, Bill Nowling. He added that creditors may try to force a liquidation of assets should Orr pursue a Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

“We fully recognize the cultural significance of the DIA and all other cultural institutions in the city to the city and the region,” Nowling said in a phone interview. “Kevyn has a fiduciary responsibility to determine the value of all the assets of the city to determine and rationalize their value. Our creditors would demand that of us anyway.”

Diego Rivera

The collection includes Diego Rivera’s 27-panel fresco “Detroit Industry,” which occupies a sky-lit garden court and is a tribute to the city’s labor force of the 1930s. Rivera considered it his most successful work.

Vincent Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait in a yellow straw hat was the first painting by the Dutch artist to enter a U.S. museum collection. His 1888 “Portrait of Postman Roulin,” depicts Joseph-Etienne Roulin, the painter’s bearded friend in Arles, France, where Van Gogh moved that year.

Auguste Rodin’s iconic “The Thinker” greets visitors outside the main entrance. Cast in 1904, the large bronze of a nude man atop a granite pedestal weighs 14,000 pounds.

At least three paintings -- the postman, “The Wedding Dance” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and “Madonna and Child” by Giovanni Bellini -- could each fetch more than $150 million.

“You are talking about works of such exceptional significance, they would be comparable in value to pieces like Picasso’s ‘Le Reve’ and Cezanne’s ‘Card Players,’” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, valuation specialist and president of New York-based BSJ Fine Art.

Hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen bought “Le Reve” for $150 million last year. In 2011, the royal family of Qatar paid more than $250 million for “Card Players,” according to Vanity Fair.

Public Trust

To protect its collection, the museum hired Richard Levin, a bankruptcy specialist at Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP. Erickson said the art is held in public trust and the museum can sell an artwork only to raise the money to buy another.

Detroit City Councilman James Tate said some city residents favor improved police protection over preserving the museum, while others decry the threat to the city jewel. He said the possible sale jarred many in the suburbs who usually view Detroit as a distant problem.

“You can’t just push aside Detroit and not realize that what happens here affects everyone,” he said.

Access this link quickly to the Detroit Institute of Arts, because who knows how much longer it will be around.