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Motown Meltdown: Christie’s to Appraise Part of Detroit Institute of Arts’ Collection; DIA Will “Cooperate Completely”

A Christie’s appraiser at work (not at Detroit Institute)
Image from Christie’s appraisals webpage

A precondition for any deplorable forced sale of works from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection to help defray the financially devastated city’s debts and obligations would be a professional appraisal of those artworks. That first step has now been set in motion, ordered today by Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

As announced separately today by Christie’s and by the museum (full text of DIA’s statement, below), the auction house’s appraisal arm has entered in an agreement to evaluate certain works. As reported by Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press, a spokesperson for Orr stated that Christie’s “will be be looking only at work clearly owned by the city, unencumbered by donor restrictions that might preclude possible sale.”

Stryker adds:

The move doesn’t necessarily mean that the DIA’s irreplaceable collection is any more at risk for sale than it was at the beginning of Orr’s negotiations with creditors last spring. But it will still likely send a chill up the spine of DIA supporters worried that city-owned treasures might be sold to pay down some of city’s estimate $18 billion debt owed bondholders, pensioners and others….Creditors are pushing for a sale in ongoing negotiations….The DIA…would likely sue in the event that Orr tried to sell art.

Not only DIA supporters, but museum officials around the country have felt a “chill up the spine” from this threat to the integrity of collections held in public trust. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) today issued a statement asserting that “to consider moving forward with this course of action threatens damage to one of Detroit’s anchor institutions, a civic entity that will be instrumental in securing Detroit’s future as a vibrant city.”

In its own statement, DIA takes this a step further, explaining why a forced sale would not just “threaten damage” to the museum. It “would precipitate the rapid demise of the DIA.”

In its above-linked statement today, Christie’s paid lip service to its passion for art and to “the importance of the contribution that institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts offer to the community and the world at large.” It also suggested it might work with the museum and city to “find alternatives to selling that would still provide the City with needed revenue (shades of Sotheby’s Rent-a-Rose proposal for Brandeis University?). But in a previous Free Press article, Stryker detailed reasons why there are “not many possibilities for the Detroit Institute of Arts to raise money outside of selling art.”

If AAMD wanted to put some teeth into its admonitory statement, it could urge its members not to consign art to Christie’s unless the auction house changed course and refused to do this dirty work. But someone’s going to do it—if not Christie’s, a competitor. As I said in this post, once auction houses take reasonable steps to assure authenticity and good title, “it’s not part of their job description to be moral arbiters of what should or should not be sold” (or appraised).

We can only hope that if Detroit ultimately goes to court to prevent a sale, AAMD will file an amicus brief.

Here, in full, is the forceful statement issued by DIA today regarding these vexing developments:

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has learned that Christie’s, at the request of the Emergency Manager, plans to proceed with a valuation of the DIA collection, and we will be cooperating completely in that process. However, we continue to believe there is no reason to value the collection as the Attorney General has made clear [my link, not theirs] that the art is held in charitable trust and cannot be sold as part of a bankruptcy proceeding [emphasis added]. We applaud the EM’s focus on rebuilding the City, but would point out that he undercuts that core goal by jeopardizing Detroit’s most important cultural institution.

In addition, recent moves in Oakland and Macomb counties to invalidate the tri-county millage [my link, not theirs] if art is sold virtually ensure that any forced sale of art would precipitate the rapid demise of the DIA. Removing $23 million in annual operating funds – nearly 75% of the museum’s operating budget – and violating the trust of donors and supporters would cripple the museum, putting an additional financial burden on our already struggling city. The DIA has long been doing business without City of Detroit operating support; any move that compromises its financial stability will endanger the museum and further challenge the City’s future.

Detroit should save the $200,000 it is reportedly paying Christie’s and put it to more constructive use.

an ArtsJournal blog