Christie’s appraisal of Detroit museum’s artwork “like the weighing of souls”

More details have emerged about the agreement between Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr and Christie’s auction house in New York concerning the appraisal of major works at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).

Orr initiated the brutal, unprecedented procedure with an eye to a possible sale of portions of the DIA’s priceless collection to pay off the city’s wealthy creditors. With few public art institutions in a position to spend hundreds of millions on acquisitions, many pieces would undoubtedly find their way into the private collections of the financial aristocracy.

According to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press (August 18), Christie’s has plans to appraise some 3,500 works. “Among those are 300 on view as part of the permanent display, including iconic works by van Gogh, Matisse, Rembrandt, Bruegel and others.”

The auction house will only evaluate works bought directly by the city, most of them purchased between 1920 and 1930, when the booming auto industry was helping to propel Detroit into the ranks of the country’s most populous cities.

In 100 Masterworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts, a volume published in 1985 to commemorate 100 years of the institution, DIA acting chief curator William H. Peck explained that in the 1920s, with “the promise of greatly increased space [the present building on Woodward Avenue opened in 1927] and the generous support of the city government, the museum initiated an acquisition program designed to make the collections a comprehensive survey of the history of art. The plan of the larger facility was devised to take the visitor on an imaginative walk through the ages.”

Works acquired in this period by the DIA, now under the directorship of William R. Valentiner, included Jan van Eyck’s Saint Jerome in His Study, Pieter Bruegel’s The Wedding Dance, Egyptian and Babylonian antiquities, and more modern paintings by the French Realists and Impressionists, including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas, and the German Expressionists (a favorite of Valentiner). “The Self-Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh and The Window by Henri Matisse represented radical departures in acquisitions for the museum” (100 Masterworks from the Detroit Institute of Arts).

Valentiner (1880-1958), born in Karlsruhe, Germany, was a remarkable figure. As a graduate student at Heidelberg, he settled on art history as his field, writing his dissertation on Rembrandt (1904). He joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1908 and founded the journal Art in America in 1913.

Following service during World War I in the German army, Valentiner joined the leftist Novembergruppe (November Group, named after the German revolution of November 1918) and participated in the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Workers Council—or soviet—for Art). In a March 1, 1919, leaflet, the latter set out its fundamental premise: “Art and the people must form an entity. Art shall no longer be a luxury of the few but should be enjoyed and experienced by the broad masses.” Artists associated with the Workers Council for Art included Lyonel Feininger, Otto Freundlich, Erich Heckel, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, among others.

Valentiner returned to the US in 1921, taking over the post at the DIA three years later. It was no historical accident that he engaged Diego Rivera, the left-wing Mexican artist, to paint his now world-famous Detroit Industry fresco cycle at the DIA in the early 1930s.

While Valentiner was still at the DIA (he retired from the museum in 1944) and building up its collection in important ways, the work of Feininger, Heckel, Nolde, Pechstein and many others was denounced by the Hitler regime in the late 1930s as part of their campaign against “degenerate” art; Freundlich was murdered in a concentration camp, in 1943. Now a different set of barbarians, America’s financial elite, is setting about to destroy, if they can get away with it, the museum Valentiner helped to create in Detroit.

According to Stryker in the Free Press, Christie’s “appraisal will unfold in phases. Officials will start with the art on view before evaluating art in storage with an estimated market value of $50,000 or more and, finally, art in storage presumed to be worth less than $50,000.”

Representatives from the DIA and Christie’s will not meet until September, and the final results of the appraisal will not be forthcoming until October or November. The auction house is receiving $200,000 for the evaluation.

Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, told the Free Press, “This is like the weighing of souls.… This is biblical stuff, not the approximations that insurance companies look for. It’s extremely problematic for all museums, because it alters the public’s perception of artworks from being ciphers of public heritage of transcendent value, to objects for sale to pay other people’s debts.”

Stryker begins his article cynically: “Art museums treat estimated values of their art like state secrets. In fact, major museums such as the Detroit Institute of Arts don’t even know precisely what all of their multimillion-dollar treasures are worth. That is about to change in Detroit.” Does he consider that a positive good?

Only a society run by corporate thieves would even consider setting a monetary value on the works held by the DIA. The value of an artwork lies in the depth with which it engages and sheds light on reality, not what Christie’s can get for it.

DIA officials chose not to challenge the city’s eligibility for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on Monday, unlike many creditors, retirees and residents. DIA board chairman Eugene A. Gargaro said in a statement, “We support (Emergency Manager) Kevyn Orr’s goal of rebuilding the city through strengthening of the city’s institutions and governance. We know the museum plays a critical role in anchoring the Midtown neighborhood and the city’s burgeoning arts community, and we stand ready to leverage that role in the rebirth of Detroit.”

Gargaro is former vice president of corporate giant Masco Corp. and private counsel to the wealthy Manoogian family. DIA officials may very well be trying to work out their own deal with Orr and his cohorts or generally appease the emergency manager, and can in no way be entrusted to defend the museum.