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Municipal Bankruptcy and Artworks

On November 7th, a US bankruptcy court judge, Steven Rhodes, approved Detroit's plan, allowing its exit from bankruptcy court protection.

One of the remarkable subplots in Detroit's bankruptcy-court saga has been the availability of works of art as collateral.

Rhodes' opinion described the Detroit Institute of Art as "an invaluable beacon of culture" and declared that the liquidate its assets, that is, to sell its artworks for the benefit of the creditors of the city, would be "to forfeit Detroit's future."

I'm not sure I believe that. After all, the works themselves would have remained intact, surely? Unless we believe that the high bidder would be someone with a malicious design to destroy what he/she/it was buying. I think the reasonable guess is that the artworks involved would generally have ended up in the hands of other museums, or in a smattering of cases in the hands of wealthy collectors willing and in fact eager to take good care of them.

Not the worst of fates.

Still, Lee Rosenbaum has a good point in the Thursday issue of The Wall Street Journal. After the DIA's close call, other museums which are owned in whole or in part by municipalities should do what they can about making themselves bankruptcy remote. or "what seems inconceivable today may become inescapable tomorrow."


  1. Great art should be viewed as a public inheritance, even when privately owned. After a century, perhaps, a work of art might be viewed as, in a sense, entering the public domain, the way copyrighted works do. I'm not advocating that works of art be seized by the government, but only that wealthy collectors ought not only to take good care of their art, but be willing to lend it to museums for exhibitions. Perhaps the concept of eminent domain might be expanded to allow the government, upon payment of just compensation (rental fees in this case), to require collectors to lend their art for occasional exhibition in public museums.


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