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Bankrupt Detroit May Force Museum to Sell Van Gogh and Degas Paintings

Posted By Daniel Greenfield On May 25, 2013 @ 11:47 pm In The Point | 21 Comments

If you’ve been hanging around hoping that the bankruptcy of Detroit will let you get your hands on a Rodin or Van Gogh, you just might be in luck. Before Detroit became known as the biggest scrapyard and ghetto in the country, it had arts and culture. Enough of them to fill the Detroit Institute of Art with a serious collection worth a few billion.

But these days Detroit doesn’t need art. The average Detroit resident thinks art is a guy who sells heroin down the block. And he’s probably right.

Detroit needs money. And the Detroit Institute of Art is hearing the clarion call of “Show me the Matisses.”

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr is considering whether the multibillion-dollar collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts should be considered city assets that potentially could be sold to cover about $15 billion in debt.

How much is the art at the DIA worth? Nobody knows exactly, but several billion dollars might well be a low estimate

DIA patron A. Alfred Taubman said this evening that “it would be a crime” to sell any of the DIA’s collection to satisfy city creditors.

“I’m sure Mr. Orr, once he thinks about it, will certainly not choose that as one of the assets,” Taubman said. “It’s not just an asset of Detroit. It’s an asset of the country.”

Which is why some part of the country that isn’t always on fire should probably have it instead of Detroit.

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Orr, said the art collection at the DIA must, however reluctantly, be considered one of the city’s assets in the current financial emergency as the city heads toward a possible bankruptcy filing.

“The creditors can really force the issue,” Nowling said. “If you go into court, they can object and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking a huge haircut, and you’ve got a billion dollars worth of art sitting over there.’ ”

The possible forced sale of some of the DIA’s greatest treasures — including some of the world’s most famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and scores of other masterpieces, is sending shock waves through the museum world.

Just wait till the pain spreads beyond Detroit as more blue cities head for bankruptcy. And if city leaders have to choose between union pensions, welfare and Rodin… Rodin has got to go.

“There would be hue and cry the likes of which you’ve never heard,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C. “The museum should be a rallying point for the rebirth of Detroit and not a source of funds.”

Museums alone don’t lead to the rebirth of cities. People do. And Detroit doesn’t have people anymore. It just has people who are too lazy to leave.

Art dealers in New York and metro Detroit reviewed a list of 38 of the greatest masterpieces owned by the museum and estimated a market value of at least $2.5 billion with pieces such as Bruegel’s “The Wedding Dance,” van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” and Matisse’s “The Window” all carrying estimates of between $100 million and $150 million each.

If anyone at the DIA had good taste, they would have already dumped the Matisse. The Van Gogh self-portrait is not the famous one you’re thinking of. And the Bruegel is kitsch. But the DIA also has an undervalued Caravaggio and a better Van Gogh. It also has one of Rodin’s The Thinker sculptures, seen above. And a rather nice Degas.

But personally I’ve got my eye on this painting. It sums up things nicely.


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