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Creditors eye Detroit’s art collection

One of Mexican painter Diego Riveria's Detroit Industry frescos in the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
One of Mexican painter Diego Riveria's Detroit Industry frescos in the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

TORONTO — Estimated to be worth billions, the Detroit Institute of the Arts’ collection may not be protected from creditors after the City filed for bankruptcy on Thursday.

As Detroit’s over 100,000 creditors begin to size-up the DIA’s massive collection, it remains unclear if the sale can be stopped without a law prohibiting it.

Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr ordered an appraisal of the DIA’s 60,000 pieces of artwork in May, sparking concern that they were preparing for a possible sale if the City filed for bankruptcy.

The Detroit Free Press has estimated the collection to be valued at $2.5 billion, including works by Matisse, van Gogh, PicassoRembrandt, Rodin and Caravaggio.

Just weeks after the appraisal, the state Senate approved a bill that would prohibit the sale of the City’s art, unless sold to a comparable institution that matches the museum’s mission. However, the bill hasn’t yet become law.

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“We haven’t taken any asset off the table. We can’t,” Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Kevyn Orr, told the New York Times, “We cannot negotiate in good faith with our creditors by taking assets off the table. And all of our creditors have asked about the worth of the D.I.A. And we’ve told them that they’re welcome to find out.”

The DIA said they were disappointed with Orr’s decision in a statement on Thursday and have hired well-known bankruptcy lawyer, Richard Levin to help them fend off  the possible sale of the City’s collection.

“Like so many with deep roots in this city, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is disappointed that the Emergency Manager determined it was necessary to file for bankruptcy. As a municipal bankruptcy of this size is unprecedented, the DIA will continue to carefully monitor the situation, fully confident that the emergency manager, the governor and the courts will act in the best interest of the City, the public and the museum.”

“We remain committed to our position that the Detroit Institute of Arts and the City of Detroit hold the DIA’s collection in trust for the public and we stand by our charge to preserve and protect the cultural heritage of all Michigan residents.”

The DIA is also home to Diego Rivera’s celebrated Detroit Industry frescos, depicting the City’s labour force in the 1930s and rising industrial power. The murals, thought to be the best work of his career, were commissioned by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel.

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Riveria, a Marxist and trailblazer in Mexican muralism, said he believed that art belonged on public walls rather than in private galleries.

As a long-term $20 billion debt looms over the city, the sale of the art collection would only be a drop in the bucket, says Cara Krmpotich, Assistant Professor, Museum Studies programme at the University of Toronto.

“The value of the art is only going to appreciate — the Picassos, the Riveras,” said Krmpotich. “There’s more value in keeping the work together.”

But if it comes to a sale, Krmpotich said it’s unlikely that another single museum would be able to afford to buy the collection — with the best prices generally garnered from private buyers at auction.

Detroit may lose other assets in the bankruptcy process, including the Detroit Zoo, the water and sewage department, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Belle Island Park and the Detroit Historical Museum.

The scope of Orr’s power to sell the collection or any other major assets will likely would be tested in court.