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Published: Monday, 7/29/2013


A civic treasure in Detroit

This self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh may be sold to help repay Detroit's debt. This self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh may be sold to help repay Detroit's debt.

A visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts can see some of the world’s greatest artworks. The Wedding Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lusty rendering of a peasant’s celebration from the 1560s, is there.

So is a self-portrait by a wary and anxious-looking Vincent van Gogh. There are treasures by Matisse, Rivera, Picasso, and Calder, to name only a few in Detroit’s vast collection.

But plan a trip soon — this year, or maybe next. With debts hovering near $18 billion, Detroit has filed for bankruptcy protection, and the institute’s impressive collection of more than 60,000 works, worth at least $2 billion, is eyed hungrily by the city’s many creditors. Christie’s auction house has sent two of its people to view the museum’s most valuable pieces.

The urge to sell — essentially to hock the family silver to pay the bills — is understandable. But selling the city’s art could be incredibly shortsighted; the long-term value of maintaining this valuable institution and its collection could easily outweigh any immediate gains.

Quite apart from the damage it would do to morale, selling this trove would also violate the public trust for the museum’s nearly 600,000 annual visitors, including 50,000 schoolchildren. And residents of three counties who agreed to a property tax increase to help finance the museum would almost certainly demand a rollback in the future.

It is not clear whether Detroit’s officials will ultimately try to sell the collection. Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, has issued a strong opinion that the art can be sold only to acquire more art, not to retire public debt.

But a spokesman for the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, who is overseeing the bankruptcy proceedings, said that although there are no specific plans to sell the art, all options “remain on the table.”

Selling the people’s art will not restore a battered city. It will only send more of its true assets elsewhere.

— New York Times

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