From London, Detroit Institute of Arts Director William Valentiner cabled the Detroit Arts Commission, seeking $35,000 to buy "The Wedding Dance," a 16th-century Flemish painting that had been hanging for years in an English country house. It was 1930 and the money was promptly wired to him.
Today, DIA director Graham Beal calls that painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder the most valuable work of art among 60,000 works in the museum's collection — both fantastically rare and exquisitely wrought.
Until now, its worth has been an academic question, a guessing game for art lovers.
But as Detroit city officials frantically try to stave off state intervention, whether by consent decree, emergency manager or even municipal bankruptcy, the city's dire financial situation raises once taboo speculation: Is the city's timeless art collection immune from the city's urgent need for cash?
As the streetlights flicker and the city's dollars trickle away, the DIA stands alone among the city's institutions as a trove of treasures. The Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles M. Wright Museum of African American History, and libraries and parks all can command market value — but lions and tigers or even rare books cannot begin to match the store of riches locked behind the DIA's grand façade.
With a collective value beyond $1billion, the DIA has several works that might command $10 million to $100 million or more with the flick of a gavel. Yes, such a sale would be unlikely, inspire outcry and lawsuits, and violate the public trust that has enabled the museum to acquire art and donations from patrons for a century.
No, the city has no plans to sell art — at least not now. "The city understands the value of its cultural institutions, and that is not a part of the plan right now," Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis said in a statement.
But the sale of even a few masterpieces could keep the city running, or pay off creditors or otherwise enable desperate city officials to trade off poetic needs for more pragmatic ones. Would the city make such a cold-blooded calculation?
"Let them get desperate with something else," said Tina Bassett, a member of the DIA's board of directors and chair of its development committee. "It's something we're so proud of."
Consequences of selling art
Beal points out that selling off work to pay bills is taboo among museums, and any effort to do so would exact a devastating psychic price: recrimination from the art community, loss of standing, irreparable damage to the DIA's reputation.
But none of those repercussions would be automatically compelling to an emergency manager whose mission is to raise cash, or to a mayor forced to choose between thousands of jobs and a Flemish masterpiece.
"Whenever someone for the best of reasons suggests selling a work of art to pay the heating bills, the most difficult thing to express is the enormous passion people feel for the trust they put in the museum," Beal said.
The city of Detroit — not the Founders Society or any other entity — owns all the DIA's works, from African masks to Ming vases to a 1950 Clyfford Still painting that's the same size and style as one sold by the city of Denver in November for $61.7 million. The Museum of Modern Art in New York paid $50 million for one of Van Gogh's portraits of Joseph Roulin more than 20 years ago; the DIA owns a similar portrait of the postmaster.
Many of the museum's greatest works were purchased directly by the city during the 1920s, when the city ran the museum as a department, paying staff salaries and budgeting for acquisitions. The city used its own dollars, not those of wealthy patrons who might have specified conditions for sale.
Lawsuits would drag on
Museum representatives insist the art is held in "trust" — but that's an idea derived from common law, experts say, not a legal document per se.
While there would certainly be legal barriers to any sale ("any good lawyer could put up a five-year battle," said one museum insider), the most fearsome opposition might be the wrath of art lovers, from ordinary citizens to powerful art patrons who expect the museum to endure, even if the city crumbles.
"Alfred Taubman and Richard Manoogian would put their feet down," says Jeffrey Abt, a Wayne State University art professor and museum historian, referring to two of the museum's major donors. Still, he observes: "The city of Detroit could, theoretically, decide they want to sell off collections to balance the budget."
Abt, author of "A Museum on the Verge," a socio-economic history of the DIA, says most of the nation's great museums are private nonprofits, not city-owned museums. Michigan's unique emergency manager law poses its own threat. And Abt, who teaches Wayne State students at the museum, is not convinced that art is as sacrosanct as it once was.
"It takes the whole notion of public trust and makes it complicated and interesting," said Abt, of a potential collision between art and the urgency of keeping the city afloat.
Or, if you're the museum director or any DIA lover, less interesting than terrifying.
"This is the first time in my career that I have no comment," said Beal, asked about whether an emergency manager could force a sale. "Who knows what can happen?"
"It's too horrible for us to think about," said Alan E. Schwartz, one of the museum's key donors. "Graham (Beal) would never let it come to that," said Ruth Rattner, a Birmingham-based art consultant.
No one would be speculating about the museum's status if the specter of an emergency manager hadn't also evolved as a possibility. The inconceivable has become less so, said Abt, given "the current political climate."
As the worst-case scenarios mount, though, it's worth remembering that financial hardship has been a constant feature of the Detroit art museum's history. During the Great Depression, when the museum's budget was slashed, some City Council members tried to fire director Valentiner, deeming him a luxury.
Even in those bleak days, though, there was no move to sell art. At the 1924 cornerstone dedication, museum official Ralph H. Booth described the new museum as "tangible evidence to the world that Detroit is a city of enlightenment and progress."
Even today, there's a presumption that the museum's art and artifacts embody the city's aspirations to high ideals and the hope for a better future. But in an extreme fiscal crisis, the museum's fate may also decide a philosophical contest between the city's soul and its need for dollars and cents.