CHICAGO — Auction house Christie's said a slice of Detroit's art collection could be worth up to $846 million, far less than the bankrupt city's creditors have speculated.
The estimate was released a week after a group of creditors, including bond insurers, asked the bankruptcy court to launch an independent valuation of the art.
Aside from the Detroit water and sewer department, the storied collection housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts is considered the city's most valuable asset.
A potential sale or monetization of the art collection has been one of the most controversial aspects of the bankruptcy case so far. Detroit emergency manager Kevyn 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.
In a preliminary report released Wednesday, Christie's said the part of the collection it assessed could be worth between $452 million and $846 million. That's far under creditor estimates of $2.5 billion, outlined in last week's court motion.
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's preliminary report. That's about 2,781 objects out of a 66,000-piece collection.
Christie's also presented five proposals that would allow the city to leverage cash from the collection.
The proposals 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.
"It is clear that 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 in the report. "All require further exploration to make practical assessments of their feasibility and to approximate the amount of revenue they could generate."
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. "The most fruitful museum partners would likely be found in emerging markets where high levels of government funding and significant private wealth may be available to underwrite the partnerships."
The agreement could feature rotating loan agreements of masterpieces for up to 15 years, with revenue from the lease going to the city.
A masterpiece trust fund would be a first-of-its-kind museum consortium, according to the Christie's report. 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.
Christie's will release a final report the week of Dec. 16.
The DIA, which has fought against monetizing the collection, issued a statement that 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 DIA continues to maintain its position that the museum collection is a cultural resource, not a municipal asset, and consequently has no comment on the preliminary evaluation report," the museum said in a statement. "The collection's true value is in the education and enjoyment of the public.
"The DIA remains an essential anchor institution in the revitalization of Midtown Detroit and is critical to continued economic growth and community development in Detroit and beyond. The DIA remains hopeful that the emergency manager will, consistent with the city's fiduciary duty as a public trustee, continue to protect the Museum and the collection and oppose any attempts to force a sale, despite the position that some creditors have taken in a recent bankruptcy court filing. However, if the collection is jeopardized, the DIA remains committed to taking appropriate action to preserve this cultural birthright for future generations."
Christie's released its valuation Wednesday, a day after federal Judge Steven Rhodes ruled the city is legally eligible to enter into bankruptcy protection. As part of Rhodes' 90-minute presentation, he cautioned city officials to use "extreme caution" when selling assets.
"When the expenses of an enterprise exceeds its revenue, a one-time infusion of cash, whether from an asset sale or borrowing, only delays inevitable financial failure unless the enterprise reduces expenses or enhances income," Rhodes said.