Detroit's art collection might not be worth enough to rescue city

Detroit's art collection might not be worth enough to rescue city

DETROIT - The auction house Christie's put a price tag on one of Detroit's highest-profile assets - the city's share of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection - but the masterworks might not be worth enough to help the city out of its financial crisis.

Christie's said on Wednesday that nearly 3,000 works controlled by the city are worth between $452 million and $866 million. The appraisal surprised some experts who thought the works, which include masterpieces by van Gogh and Matisse, might be worth more.

The finding by Christie's, hired to place a value on art treasures that have become a point of heated debate over the past few months in the city and its suburbs, could become a contested element of the Detroit bankruptcy if the city tries to "monetise" its masterpieces. The report puts a range of value on 2,781 works owned or partially owned by the city.

Christie's also proposed five alternatives to an outright sale of the art, including using the collection as collateral for a loan to the city.

The holdings represent only about 5 per cent of the total number of art pieces in DIA's collection. But Christie's, which sought to appraise the most valuable pieces in the city-owned collection, stated that 11 of those pieces account for 75 per cent of the total value of all appraised pieces.

With the finding Tuesday that Detroit is bankrupt under Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code, it is possible the city may seek to monetise some of the artwork. With debts totaling $18.5 billion, Detroit may need to sell all or part of the DIA collection as part of its plan to emerge from bankruptcy.

But the relatively low price range Christie's assigned to the collection could make the art a less vital asset than some observers had expected, said Michael Bennett, a law professor at Northeastern University who has written about the plight of the DIA.

"If Christie's is saying that we'd be looking at something less than $1 billion, and perhaps something significantly less than $1 billion, in proceeds from a sale, clearly that's not even a drop in the bucket if you bear in mind the magnitude of the financial deficit of the city," Bennett said.

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