Art for Sale

Excellent piece in today’s WSJ on the dilemma facing the Detroit Institure of Arts. Here are a few key graphs:

DIAThe DIA’s predicament is unprecedented. No American museum has ever been pressed to bail out its bankrupt hometown. Any sale would violate two cardinal principles of museum ethics: the doctrine that museums hold art in trust for future generations and that, therefore, artworks may be sold only to purchase more art.

Nor has any museum been at the center of the clash between competing definitions of the public good, forced to defend itself from critics who sketch the to-sell-or-not-to-sell quandary in moral terms. These people argue that art cannot be spared while retired police officers and bus drivers are forced to lose part of their pensions—even though the proceeds from art sales would be shared with lawyers, consultants and other creditors and amount to pennies per person.

Little wonder, then, that this complex situation has elicited numerous opinions that are so disconnected from reality that they amount to magical thinking.

Last month, for example, at a panel discussion in New York on the DIA’s plight hosted by the International Foundation for Art Research, Richard Feigen, a well-known New York art dealer, suggested that no one would be so unprincipled as to buy art from the museum. The audience applauded, until David Nash, another well-known New York dealer, broke the spell. Plenty of people in Russia, the Middle East and China would be interested in buying the DIA’s masterpieces, he rightly said.

At the same event, the DIA’s director, Graham W.J. Beal, said he was “optimistic” that the museum would escape unscathed, citing the 22-page opinion issued by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in June. It declared that “no piece in the collection may be sold, conveyed or transferred to satisfy City debts or obligations” because the art is held in public trust. Yet Mr. Schuette’s opinion is far from impregnable: It may not withstand the near-certain court challenge from creditors.

For their part, Detroit’s creditors—perhaps eyeing last month’s sale of Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych of Lucien Freud for $142.4 million—are unrealistically expecting billions of dollars from the DIA. Yet the DIA owns no contemporary artworks of similar caliber; its most important objects are Impressionist and Old Master works, such as Rembrandt’s “Visitation” (1640), markets where demand is lower, buyers fewer and prices generally not as high.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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