Art Lovers Get the Fantods over Possible Detroit Museum Sale -- But Really, It's Only Money

Categories: Schutze

Occasional correspondent Bill Marvel, who defends the high holiness of art, sent me the following headline this morning, "DIA's art collection could face sell-off to satisfy Detroit's creditors," along with a personal note: "I know this will warm your heart."

The DIA is the Detroit Institute of Art, their big museum up there. I'm from Detroit. Bill thinks I'm wicked because I didn't take the side of the Nasher Sculpture Center here in Dallas when it said a nearby condo tower was burning up its artwork with light reflected off its windows. My own headline was, "Ain't No Call fer Us to Pick a Side in Them Rich Folks' Museum Feudin'," which ought to give you the flavor.

Are we caught up here? Oh, no: Detroit is bankrupt. It owes billions and billions. Somebody up there floated the idea of selling off artwork in the DIA, which is worth billions and billions, to pay off the debt.

Predictably, billions and billions of Bill Marvels leaped to the fore to denounce the very idea, the very idea! I picture Marlon Brando with snakes on his face in Apocalypse Now, muttering, "The horror, the horror!" Oh yes, heaven forefend that anyone should think of art as money, in spite of the fact that its principal and most important role in modern culture is to serve as a form of currency.

And this thought occurs: You know who might not think it was so totally terrible to force Detroit to sell off some of its paintin's? The guy whose electrical supply warehouse or storm sewer repair contracting shop is in the toilet because he did a bunch of work for Detroit and didn't get paid. He's sitting around right now with snakes on his face muttering, "The money, the money!"

There was an interesting lawsuit floating around Dallas for a time until it got kicked out of federal court, alleging all sorts of machinations and shenanigans in the acquisition by the Dallas Museum of Art of the Emery and Wendy Reeves collection, a valuable trove acquired in the early '80s from a long-former model who had become the eccentric bibulous widow of a globe-trotting publisher. She died in 2007.

See also:
Ain't No Call fer Us to Pick a Side in Them Rich Folks' Museum Feudin'

As I say, the suit was kicked out of court, and so its allegations must be taken as unproved. But I was around when the Reeves collection was being reeled in, and I had access to a little of the behind-the-scenes as a reporter and columnist at the time. When I saw the suit, which alleged all sorts of liberties taken and exploitation of an old lady's vulnerabilities, I did think to myself, "Yeah, don't get caught between a priapic art museum and the artwork it's lusting for."

Just saying. Museums ain't churches, you know. By the way, there's lots of law on the books about artwork and bankruptcy, having to do mainly with the habit of art galleries of slamming the doors, declaring bankruptcy and then selling off works consigned to them by artists to pay off their debts. It's not pretty, but, you know what? The world of art as wealth isn't all that pretty, at least not any prettier than crude oil as wealth or just plain old fashioned money.

At a certain point, it is money. Art becomes money. Rich people collect it and show it off for the same reason people in the Park Cities here pay companies thousands of dollars to install electrified nativity scenes on their lawns in December. It's a way to put your net worth statement out in the yard where people will see it.

So I say this. If somebody allowed Detroit to skate on billions in debt, that means somebody else is owed billions. They have a right to get paid. Why should wealth hoarded as public art be somehow sacrosanct and immune from collection for public debt?

Put it on eBay, man. Let somebody down here in Dallas grab it and put it in front of his house next Christmas. I can't imagine a safer place for high art than a Park Cities lawn. Think of the fun. The dude next door might amp up his baby Jesus scene and start reflecting too much light on the art. It could be a battle of the net worth statements. I'd load up the family and drive by for that.

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I agree to a point. I have no problem with the City selling the art to pay debt but the art that was donated should be returned to the family that made the donation and the private donations that went to buy works of art should be returned to those who donated when that art is then sold.

Why? Because, to do otherwise would undermine every art museum in the nation. They all depend on donations or loans of art work for the public to see not to secure cities debt. Is it just a vain display of wealth? perhaps but none the less it also serves a public good and betraying the trust in the institution that makes that good possible would be a detriment to Detroit as well as Dallas and every other city art museum.

Sotiredofitall topcommenter

If you have stuff but no money to pay your bills, you sell stuff to get money and pay your bills.  I don't see an issue.  


How would the IRS even know? Do they get notified every time a city sells a picture? The city is not non/profit nstitution that needs to justify its status wih IRS. Its status is in th Constitution. As for appraisal of previous gifts, that is an issue between IRS and original donor, provided the review period has not expired. I doubt Detroit has received many significant gifts in the last 7 years. As long as the buyers are regular people, IRS would not be a factor. If another Museum bought the work, then that institution may have to file something as a non-profit. That info would not contain anything about what Detroit paid or who donated.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Folks are overlooking one thing.  What was the value of the artwork when it was either donated to or purchased by the Detroit Museum?  If donated artwork sells for less than the appraised value when donated; or, sells for a price that there is little or no appreciation that when compared to other similar pieces would indicate that the original appraisal was high, the the IRS will have a great number of questions.  This could also affect the valuations of other pieces of art donated to or purchased by other museums.

Similarly for purchased pieces, did the Detroit Museum potentially overpay for the item?

The IRS will be watching these sales like a hawk when they occur in order to gain some valuable data on prices of artwork that is considered to be "museum quality".


Yo ah know how hard it iz fo' you ta put chickn n` corn bread 'n waffles on yo' family you know das right!

primi_timpano topcommenter

Local international art dealer=scam artist


It might choke Artie, but it ain't gonna choke Stymie........

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

My heart goes out to die-hard Detroiters.  Selling off art in the city's museum to pay bills is quite sad. 

bmarvel topcommenter

I  knew you'd sink to the occasion,j Jim.


I agree with Mr. Schutze on this. And, if people object to the art getting sold off, they (and even groups of them) can bid on the art and give it back to the museum (or another museum).

If this was some rich individual or company that was bankrupt, nobody would bat an eye at them auctioning art off to pay off their debts. And, if after all the debts were paid, one of the people who bought the art gave it back to the person/company, it would cause any problems either.


@bmarvel With such marvelous bait, how could he resist. I was a copyboy for the DTH in the summer of '69 and have also written for the Observer many times back in the day. I know of and respect both you guys. Keep up the good fights. Thanks. ~ / ~ OM

bmarvel topcommenter

@Tim.Covington"And, if after all the debts were paid, one of the people who bought the art gave it back to the person/company,..."

Leaving aside the fact that Detroit is not/neither a "person/company," Tim, i see the ingenuity of your plan: the art is given back, the city runs up another debt and sells the art again to pay the electrical supply warehouse or storm sewer repair contractor. And so on. Who knew art could be so useful?

By the way, I too was around when the Reeves collection was being reeled in, and I too had access to a little of the behind-the-scenes as a reporter and columnist at the time. For the same newspaper as Jim, as a matter of fact. I even got a stern east-Texas talking-to from Wendy one day, a distinction I do not think Jim can claim.

JimSX topcommenter


You do realize this goes on  your permanent Lawn Record. 

bmarvel topcommenter

@gregmarcydagama Regretfully, I'll have to let others have the fun with Jim. I had forgotten, Tuesday is the day i have to clean my goldfishes' teeth.


@bmarvel The day they removed a rich lady's shoes from the DMA was a sad day indeed. Those were some frickin' charming shoes, Jack!

You'd think they would have at least left her chair, or her toothbrush or something. Ah, well. We'll muddle through.

JimSX topcommenter


I got a second-hand once removed talking to.

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