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Christie's Puts Final Tally on Detroit's Public Art

DEC 19, 2013 3:09pm ET
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CHICAGO — Auction house Christie's valued bankrupt Detroit's art collection at between $454 million and $867 million in a final assessment turned over to city emergency manager Kevyn Orr this week.

Orr's office released the final report, dated Dec. 17, on Thursday. The figures were slightly revised from a preliminary report issued earlier this month by Christie's that appraised the reviewed works at a range of $452 million and $846 million. The figures are far less than the more than $2 billion estimate some city creditors have speculated the works are worth.

The storied collection housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts is considered one of the city's most valuable assets and a potential sale or monetization of the collection has been one of the most controversial aspects of the bankruptcy case. Orr announced in August that he'd hired Christie's for the evaluation, and has said repeatedly that the art is on the table in the city's restructuring.

Christie's appraisal accounts for only about 5% of the objects in the DIA's total collection — works that are clearly owned by the city, according to the auction house. That's about 2,781 objects out of a 66,000-piece collection.

Eleven pieces account for 75% of the total appraised value. They include Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting The Wedding Dance, valued between $100 million and $200 million, and Vincent van Gogh's Self Portrait with Straw Hat, valued between $80 million and $150 million. Rembrandt's The Visitation is valued between $50 million and $90 million, and Henri Mattisse's Le guéridon at $40 million to $80 million.

Christie's also presents five "alternative" proposals that would allow the city to leverage cash from the collection while retaining ownership. "We trust our report and its findings will provide a useful resource for the city, its creditors, and all the parties involved as current negotiations and bankruptcy proceedings move forward," says the report from Doug Woodham, president of Christie's Americas.

The proposals laid out as alternatives to an outright sale include the use of art as collateral for a loan; leasing the art to a partnership museum; creation of a "masterpiece trust;" sale and permanent loan or gift to the DIA; and a traveling exhibition.

"As noted, the success of these alternatives depends heavily on cooperation between the city and the museum, along with supporting third parties in certain cases," Christie's said.

The current "robust art market" would allow the city to use the art as collateral for a long-term loan or a line of credit, Christie's said. The debt would be serviced with city revenue outside the art museum.

A long-term lease of the museum's collection would work best with a wealthy museum that lacks a strong collection, the auction house said. A masterpiece trust fund would be a first-of-its-kind museum consortium, according to Christie's. The DIA would transfer the work into the trust fund and interests would be sold to individual museums. Revenues from shares would be generated for the city. The city could also permanently loan or sell a work to a buyer who would then promise to keep the work on display at the institute.

The DIA has fought against monetizing the collection. In a statement earlier this month it said the art should be off-limits because it's held in a trust for the people of Detroit. The state's attorney general in the spring issued an opinion that the art would be off-limits even in a bankruptcy.

The Christie's report comes after the DIA joined federal mediation aimed at striking a deal involving a consortium of national and local charitable foundations that would allow the museum to provide the city with the estimated $500 million it is seeking for its restructuring while protecting the museum's assets.

Christie's said in the report it was pleased to "see that the court-appointed mediator is exploring a variation on our suggested alternative" of safeguarding the works through a sale and permanent loan or deposit back to the museum.

Micigan Gov. Rick Snyder reportedly told the Detroit News editorial board Thursday that state financial support of a fund to rescue the DIA from any asset sales could help broker a deal to settle the city's debts.

"I would say it's much more likely that you could find an inclination of people to do that if was part of settling the whole (bankruptcy) case, if it really said this would wrap things up," the News reported Snyder as saying.

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