Detroit could sell multi-billion dollar DIA art collection

Kristen Butler,
Still Life, Three Skulls c. 1900 by Paul Cézanne, currently located at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (CC/PD)
"Still Life, Three Skulls" c. 1900 by Paul Cézanne, currently located at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (CC/PD)

The city of Detroit is facing $15 billion in debt, and emergency manager Kevyn Orr is considering whether the collection at Detroit Institute of Arts is a city asset that can be used to pay off city creditors.

The proposition has many people outraged, according to the Detroit Free Press. “There would be hue and cry the likes of which you’ve never heard,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C.


The DIA’s masterpieces include some of the world’s most famous paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. A list of 38 of the museum's greatest treasures, including van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” and Matisse’s “The Window,” was valued at $2.5 billion.

Bill Nowling, spokesman for Orr, said the city has "no interest in selling art," but said creditors have already inquired about the collection. "These are people savvy enough to know where all the money for the City of Detroit is," he said.

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Unlike most major civic museums, the city owns the DIA building and collection, while daily operations and fundraising are handled by a non-profit organization.

DIA Executive Vice President Annmarie Erickson said the museum has hired New York bankruptcy attorney Richard Levin to advise ways to protect the collection. “We are standing by our contention and belief that we hold the collection in trust for the public,” Erickson said. “And although to some it may seem to be an asset, we do not.”


“We have to look at everything on the table,” Nowling said of the controversial liquidation. "I’m a great lover of art and so is Kevyn, we’ve got a responsibility to rationalize all the assets of the city and find out what the worth is and what the city holds," he said.

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