Detroit Institute of Arts says bankruptcy appraisals would harm ‘irreplaceable’ art

BY Chelsea Coatney  May 13, 2014 at 4:39 PM EDT
Photo by Detroit Public Television

Photo by Detroit Public Television

On Tuesday, the Detroit Institute of Arts told a bankruptcy judge that allowing potential buyers to come into the museum for a “yard-sale-like” bankruptcy appraisal would be harmful to the 1,741 pieces of art currently hanging in the museum.

“The risk associated with moving and handling works of art is considerable; moving and handling thousands of works in a compressed time frame invites disaster,” DIA attorney Arthur T. O’Reilly wrote in a court filing. “Insurance could not fully compensate for the destruction of objects since those works are unique and irreplaceable and a part of the cultural heritage that the museum protects.”

A recently proposed deal would allow the city of Detroit to “sell” the art it owns and houses at the Detroit Institute of Arts to a trust that would be required to keep the art in the city. The money raised would go toward funding the city’s $3.5 billion pension deficit.

Detroit’s creditors had asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to allow interested buyers to look through the DIA’s collection in order to allow them to make their own estimation of the worth of the collection. They believe that it is worth more than the $816 million being offered by the potential trust. In an appraisal conducted in 2013, the city’s art collection was valued at between $454 million and $867 million.

Detroit is unique from other major U.S. cities in the way it owns its own art museum, a collection which includes famous works such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Wedding Dance” and Henri Matisse’s “The Window.” The Detroit art world has been passionate in its fight to keep these famous works in the city after it’s declaration of bankruptcy in December 2013, but creditors are eager to dip into this potential pool of funding.

The latest idea brings together the Ford, Kresge, Knight and other foundations, the state of Michigan, and funding from the Institute of Arts itself in order to form a trust that would keep the art in Detroit and funnel $816 million into the Detroit pension system. The Detroit Free Press reported on Tuesday that the DIA has also reached out to automakers GM, Ford, and Chrysler for funding. The Detroit Three are reportedly considering giving a combined $25 million to the museum.

This plan has received some criticism– David Skeel, a professor of bankruptcy law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School writing for the Washington Post, suggested that the plan defies U.S. bankruptcy law and is most likely illegal.

According to DIA Director Graham Beal, less than nine percent of the museum’s 60,000-piece collection is on display.