If you’ve been reading about Detroit’s bankruptcy, you may have heard that all the city’s assets may be up for sale. This, unfortunately, could include one of the more beautiful city parks in the nation – Belle Isle – and a collection of art from some of the great masters.
At least among the paintings, I think the news stories generally tend to underestimate the value of the artworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts, some of which are significant works by the greatest names in art history.
The names include a roll call of artists studied in ART 221 at KVCC: Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Pissarro, van Eyck, Courbet, Matisse, Warhol, Breugel, Rembrandt, Titian, Boucher, Parmigianino, Poussin, Rubens, Fragonard, Gauguin, Cezanne, Manet, Seurat, Gainsborough, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Holbein, Picasso, and Caravaggio, just to name a few.
The DIA website lists 380 paintings in the European collection alone. Overall, the museum estimates its collection at 60,000 pieces.
Many of these works are, of course, truly priceless. However, to gauge what some of them might sell for, you can look at Wikipedia’s handy list of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, which has a work by Paul Cezanne at the top, having sold for about $259 million in 2011. Cezanne is a biggy, but he’s no van Gogh when it comes to popularity. For comparison, van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for the equivalent of $148 million in 1990 (the DIA has at least four amazing van Goghs, including a very famous self-portrait).
A report in the Detroit Free Press listed 10 paintings and price estimates that added up to $770 million. The auction value of all the works in the DIA collection is probably in the tens of billions. The city’s overall debt is in the area of $18 billion, so some or all of the artworks may end up on the table to settle that.
Two questions remain before the auction takes place: 1) Is the city obligated to sell off assets, including the art in the DIA, to pay off creditors? 2) Are they allowed to sell the art, which may be protected by Michigan law?