May 24, 2013 / 5:10 AM / 6 years ago

Fear of art sale sparked by Detroit emergency manager asking for appraisal

The skyline of Detroit, Michigan is seen from Windsor, January 4, 2012.REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

DETROIT (Reuters) - As part of his efforts to solve Detroit’s financial crisis, the city’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr has asked for an appraisal of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, sparking fears in artistic and philanthropic circles that he means to auction off the city’s artistic jewels.

Orr was appointed in March by Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder to tackle the shrinking city’s long-term debt problem, which the emergency manager estimated at $15 billion in a recent report on the state of Detroit.

Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling insists that the appraisal is not about having an artistic fire sale, but more about being ready when bondholders and their insurers, who will be asked to absorb considerable losses, inquire about the artwork.

“If we are going to ask creditors to get a big haircut, we have to look at how to rationalize all of the city’s assets, including the artwork,” Nowling told Reuters late on Thursday. “We obviously don’t want to get rid of art.”

Although Orr is seeking an appraisal for the collection, museum officials and local media claim it is worth several billion dollars. But recent prices at auction for pieces similar to those likely to be sold could not immediately be obtained. Several published sources have estimated the total annual value of fine art auctions by Christie’s and Sotheby’s at $8 billion, and estimates of the global art market top $60 billion.

The Detroit Institute of Art’s collection features several works by Vincent van Gogh, including a self portrait, Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker,” paintings by Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, ancient sculptures, plus enormous and famous murals of Detroit by Diego Rivera.

Many of the works in the institute’s collection have been gifted over the years by local noteworthy families from the city’s glorious industrial and commercial past, such as scions of the Ford family.

The city’s museum is funded by a regional tax, and a nonprofit operates the museum. So if the city wants to sell off the artwork, it could take a judge to decide whether Detroit has the authority to do so.

Editing by Nick Carey, Lisa Shumaker and Sonya Hepinstall

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