Detroit’s Contemporary “Monuments Men”

Last week, The Monuments Men was released in movie theaters across the United States. Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of a group of American art historians, museum curators, and other cultural specialists who joined the United States Army during the Second World War to help the Allied forces stop the Nazis from stealing Europe’s greatest cultural treasures.

American patrons and professionals in today’s fine arts sector, however, have no need to travel to Europe to join a group of Monuments Men. In fact, they don’t even need to leave the United States in order to join an endeavor to help local citizens protect their artistic treasures. An analogous situation is now imperiling the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The city of Detroit is proceeding through a bankruptcy filing. Last year, emergency manager Kevyn Orr asked Christie’s to estimate the funds that could be raised to pay off creditors if the Institute’s nearly 2,800 collection pieces were to be auctioned to the highest bidders. Christie’s replied that it could raise between (approximately) $450 million and $870 million if given an opportunity to liquidate the collection.

Liquidate the collection? And strip the financially battered city of Detroit of its finest cultural icons? In response to this threat, a contemporary version of The Monuments Men is rallying to save the art museum.

This modern group consists of a consortium of nonprofit foundations that is promising to donate over $300 million to purchase the Institute from the city and establish it as an independent organization, with the proceeds utilized to replenish the municipal pension funds. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked the state legislature to dedicate a similar amount of money to the cause.

But who would profit from the liquidation of the collection? The creditors who are lining up in bankruptcy court to collect on their claims include the Bank of America and UBS, which loaned the city $1.4 billion in 2005 under some allegedly inappropriate circumstances. Mr. Orr filed a lawsuit against the banks to “unwind these illegal transactions” last month, though he called a truce and restarted negotiations with the banks last week.

Nevertheless, although many parties have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to assist the Detroit Institute of Arts, no donations of that magnitude have been pledged thus far to assist the municipality and the citizenry of the city. The metropolis continues to be known as the region with the most violent crime in the United States.

At the end of the film The Monuments Men, the characters debated whether the need to save great works of art from the Nazis outweighed the cost of human lives that were lost in pursuit of this goal. Apparently, in today’s Detroit, we are now debating whether the need to save cultural treasures outweighs the need to repay debts to the global banks.

If you were Kevin Orr, would you auction the pieces of the Detroit Institute of Arts? And if you would do so, would you then use the funds to repay the global banks and other creditors?