As Detroit files for bankruptcy — the largest U.S. city ever to do so —the impressive collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts has become a political bargaining chip.

As Detroit files for bankruptcy — the largest U.S. city ever to do so —the impressive collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts has become a political bargaining chip in a fight that could drag on for years between the city and its army of creditors, who have said in no uncertain terms that the artworks must be considered a saleable asset.

“We haven’t proposed selling any asset,” said Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Kevyn D. Orr, the State-appointed emergency manager appointed to deal with Detroit’s debts, which could amount to more than $18 billion. “But we haven’t taken any asset off the table. We can’t. We cannot negotiate in good faith with our creditors by taking assets off the table. And all of our creditors have asked about the worth of the DIA. And we’ve told them that they’re welcome to find out.”

Unlike most art museums around the country, which are owned by non-profit corporations that hold a collection in trust for citizens, the institute is owned by Detroit, as is much of its collection — which is not particularly deep but includes gems by artists like Bruegel, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. It is considered among the top 10 encyclopaedic museums in the country.

Museums do not generally appraise the market value of their works beyond a blanket amount for insurance policies. But experts have speculated that the institute’s works could bring more than $2 billion if sold.

The museum, which has hired a well-known bankruptcy lawyer, Richard Levin, to advise it on its possible exposure, declined to comment Friday. But on its Facebook page, the museum said: “As a municipal bankruptcy of this size is unprecedented, the DIA will continue to carefully monitor the situation, fully confident that the emergency manager, the governor and the courts will act in the best interest of the City, the public and the museum.”

Museum officials say the sale of even a part of an institution’s core collection in effect renders a museum defunct: donors stop giving money and art, attendance declines and other support dries up. (The Detroit Institute of Arts’ annual attendance is nearly 600,000. Last year three Michigan counties agreed to institute a property tax increase earmarked for the museum, putting it on a secure financial footing for the first time in decades.)

Politically, and perhaps as a negotiating tactic, the question of the collection’s fate is being cast as a choice between measurable benefits, like city pensions, which could be cut to satisfy creditors, and the much harder-to-measure benefits of cultural assets.

“It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say, ‘We’re going to cut 20 per cent of your income or 30 per cent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal’,” Mr. Nowling said. “For people, that’s a hard distinction. I think it’s a distinction that some of the patrons of the DIA have a hard time understanding. We’re talking about real people here with real decisions that have real impact on their lives.”

— New York Times News Service

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