Economics Museums Controversies USA

Detroit’s art collection won’t be reappraised

A bankruptcy judge declines to establish an independent committee to put a higher price on the city-owned works at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Detroit Institute of Arts

A bankruptcy judge declined to establish an independent committee to assess the value of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection in a ruling Wednesday afternoon. This is good news for the museum, whose art hangs in the balance as the bankrupt city of Detroit works to settle its $18b debt.

Christie’s appraised only the objects in the museum’s collection that were purchased by the city of Detroit. It estimated the fair market value of those works to be between $454.3m and $867m. In November, a group of creditors asked the court to appoint a committee to examine the collection independently of the auction house, which they claimed might offer an “inappropriately low assessment”.

During the hearing, the creditors claimed they had received offers from potential buyers of the collection for over $1b, according to the Detroit Free Press. But bankruptcy judge Gerald Rosen ruled that he did not have the authority to order an independent appraisal. He added: “Even if [the court] did have the authority and discretion to grant this motion, that discretion should not be exercised here”.

Judge Rosen has appeared to be sensitive to the Detroit Institute of Arts' plight throughout the negotiations. Although he said today that “the court is not totally unsympathetic to the creditors’ concerns” he also said that it “is not altogether clear” that the art is “in play”. Had Rosen been committed to squeezing the maximum amount of money out of the museum’s collection, he might have authorised the independent appraisal.

During the hearing, an attorney for the city of Detroit agreed to cooperate with the creditors' requests for more information about the other works in the museum's collection, but acknowledged that some details might be difficult to find. He likened the restrictions on donated works to a warehouse in an Indiana Jones movie: "There's pages and pages. They're not terribly well organised," he said.

The city’s emergency manager is set to reveal his intentions for the city-owned art in a plan of adjustment to relieve Detroit’s debt, which could be filed as early as this month. A group of foundations has already pledged $350m to shore up the city’s pension funds and spare the collection; the state government has matched that pledge. It remains to be seen, however, whether creditors would object to this so-called “grand bargain” and fight to monetise the collection in addition to accepting the pledged funds. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder said in a press conference today that the pledge would have positive ripple effects across the board. “This is not a bailout,” Snyder said, stressing that a financially stable Detroit “will be a resource for the entire state of Michigan”.

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