Art critics and online commentators are blasting Christie's, the New York-based auction house, for possibly angling for a piece of the action should the Detroit Institute of Arts have to sell part of its collection to satisfy creditors in the city's bankruptcy.
DIA director Graham Beal confirmed that two officials from Christie's visited the museum in early June, ostensibly to appraise works on view. With the city owing an estimated $18 billion to bondholders, pensioners and others, creditors have been eyeing the city-owned art at the DIA, whose collection is undoubtedly worth billions.
Culture reporter Judith Dobrzynski on Tuesday compared Christie's behavior to a vulture. "Shame on Christie's," she wrote on her blog Real Clear Arts. "Sure, business is business, but let's remember here that it is not the Detroit Institute of Arts that has mismanaged the city and led to the bankruptcy. ... Is Christie's so hard up that it will take any business, no matter how reprehensible?"
Art critic Tyler Green, who writes the influential art blog Modern Art Notes, used even more incendiary language, tweeting Wednesday that Christie's "apparently hates Detroit." In a second tweet, he wrote: "Would we be OK with Big Pharma using a national tragedy to hike up the price of drugs? No. Ditto @Christie's and its eagerness here."
Christie's is one of the world's leading auction houses for fine art. It reported more than $6.2 billion in sales in 2012. It remains unclear who might have asked Christie's to visit the DIA or whether its officials came on their own volition.
Beal said he received a call from a Christie's official saying representatives would be visiting. About a week after the visit, Beal was told by the auction house that Christie's was holding off temporarily on further appraisal work. To Beal's knowledge, no one from Christie's has returned.
Beal declined further comment.
A spokesman for Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr said the city didn't ask Christie's to evaluate art, which suggests that if there was a request, it might have come from one or more of the city's creditors.
"The city has not engaged anyone to conduct a valuation of the DIA's assets," said spokesman Bill Nowling. "I am unaware whether any of the city's creditors have requested such a valuation."
A Christie's spokesperson declined comment Wednesday.
The involvement of Christie's underscores the DIA's precarious position as it seeks to protect its art from possible sale. It also opens a window on the elite quarters of the commercial art world, where the intersection of art, money, big business and social status creates a slippery world of shifting alliances and motivations. Some other art world insiders, who declined to speak on the record to the Free Press because of the sensitivity of the situation, privately characterized Christie's actions as predatory. They noted the company was risking possibly alienating other museums, which buy and sell work through the major auction houses all the time.
Ethical guidelines that govern the museum world allow museums to sell work only under limited circumstances, and only if the proceeds are used to buy other art.
Any claim on the art would require an independent appraisal of its current value, so it would not be surprising if creditors turned to an auction house like Christie's. Still, Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, who condemned the possible sale of DIA art in a strongly worded letter to Gov. Rick Snyder in May, cautioned that it was too early to judge Christie's action without knowing more details.
"At this point, it's important that all parties wait to see how Detroit's bankruptcy unfolds before jumping to conclusions," Rub said.
A spokesman for Sotheby's — Christie's major competitor in the international auction business — also declined comment Wednesday.
Joan Walker, a partner at the Detroit-based DuMouchelle, a respected regional auction house, was adamant that if DuMouchelle were asked to participate in a forced sale of DIA art, the company would have nothing to do with it.
"We are completely against the sale of any works at the museum," Walker said. "Our treasures should be kept at the museum for the enjoyment of the public, and I think the city should find a solution in other areas."
Asked to comment directly on Christie's sending appraisers to Detroit, Walker said curtly: "That's up to them."
The possible sale of art remains among the most controversial issues in the Detroit bankruptcy. DIA officials argue its art cannot be sold because it is held in the public trust, a view supported by a formal opinion issued last month by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. The DIA and its supporters say that the sale of even one or two masterpieces would irreparably harm the museum, causing donors to withdraw gifts of art and money and pushing tri-county officials to rescind the new dedicated property tax funneling about $22 million a year to the museum.
But creditors believe they are legally entitled to the money that could be realized from city-owned assets, including paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Bruegel and others that experts have told the Free Press could carry market values of $50 million to $100 million or more.
In the city's bankruptcy filing last week, Orr said no decision had been made about selling art, but creditors are expected to push for a sale in ongoing negotiations. While neither U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes nor creditors can force the sale of any asset in a municipal bankruptcy, Rhodes can deny any reorganization plan Orr proposes if he believes the city is shielding assets.
The resulting pressure could force Orr to put the art on the table, at which point the DIA, which has hired its own bankruptcy attorneys, would likely sue. Art and bankruptcy lawyers have told the Free Press that it's unclear how such a case would be decided.