The Fine Art Of Pricing Detroit's Collection

With Detroit's bankruptcy trial underway, one point of contention is likely to be the value of the city's art collection. The art market can be unpredictable, and disagreements between appraisers and creditors reflect just how political Detroit's art has become.

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Detroit's bankruptcy trial is underway. And one issue in the debate is the city's art collection. City officials and others have gone to great lengths to make sure the art is not sold to pay off creditors. Creditors say it's fair game. Regardless, there are different ideas about the value of the art itself, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The art market is strange and unpredictable. Take the first appraisal of Detroit's art by Christie's. The painting with the highest estimate, $100-200 million was of a big party.

MICHAEL HODGES: It's great. It's got, you know, this kind of raucous wedding dance. All the men are wearing codpieces, half the crowd looks drunk.

BLAIR: Michael Hodges, Fine Arts Writer for The Detroit News, says "The Wedding Dance" by the 16th century Flemish artist Breugel the Elder is one of the Detroit Institute of Art's many jewels.

HODGES: We always knew it was one of the very best pieces in the museums, but museum people didn't discuss what things were worth at all; that was anathema. That said, the Christie's evaluation struck me as, well, you know, they sound in the ballpark.

BLAIR: A multimillion dollar ballpark that only a tiny number of people can play in.

Marion Maneker, who publishes the Art Market Monitor says the price often depends on the tastes and mood of a collector on any given day.

MARION MANEKER: Nobody can peer into the depths of a billionaire's soul and know just how valuable a work of art is to that person.

BLAIR: Christie's was commissioned to appraise only about 5 percent of the museum's total collection of some 66,000 objects. Some of Detroit's creditors said that was unfair and that the whole collection should be valued. So the city and the museum brought in another appraiser to do that - Artvest valued it between $2.8-$4.6 billion.

Bloomberg reporter Karen Weise went through Artvest's report and found some interesting insights into what sells and what doesn't.

KAREN WEISE: There's a Jean Singer Sargent painting in the collection that they think will do very well because it's of a picture of a young woman in a white dress and those do very well in the market, apparently. But then there's a 17th century still-life that they said is so beautiful, but because it's a still-life of dead birds, probably won't do well because it's kind of an outdated type of still-life, these days.

BLAIR: The most recent appraisal of the Detroit Institute's collection puts the value of the art at $8.5 billion - about twice the size of Artvest's numbers. This was by Victor Wiener Associates, a firm hired by one of Detroit's largest creditors.

Financial Guarantee Insurance Company, FGIC, has proposed the art be used as collateral for a loan to pay off creditors. Marion Maneker says to understand why the two appraisals are so different, you need to look at who's paying for them. The smaller value was commissioned by the city and the museum and the bigger one was paid for by the creditor.

MANEKER: What we have here are legitimate appraisals for different clients with different points of view on how the sale would take place.

BLAIR: Maneker is quick to add, if a sale takes place at all. A so-called grand bargain would raise more than $800 million for city retirees, who are also creditors, under the condition the art not be sold. Art appraisers for both sides are expected to testify during Detroit's bankruptcy trial.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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