Experts dispute displaying El Greco painting at DIA raises its resale value

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The moral crux of the alleged conflict-of-interest scandal besetting the Detroit Institute of Arts and Director Salvador Salort-Pons is whether putting his father-in-law's painting by Spanish master El Greco on display could boost its value, and thus enrich the director's family.

It's a charge that comes up four times in the most recent complaint from Whistleblower Aid, the nonprofit representing DIA staffers who made the allegations. The complaint was delivered to the DIA board and the American Association of Museum Directors Thursday.

Art experts generally agree lesser-known artists might see a boost in resale value after being exhibited at a museum of the DIA’s stature.

It's also a charge that experts on the international art market view with some skepticism.

The complaint, signed by John N. Tye, the attorney who heads the organization, noted that display of the loaned El Greco from Alan M. May "could increase the personal wealth of the Director's family."

The text also asks whether there was a real curatorial purpose to the loan, or whether it was "just an excuse to further enrich the Director's family?"

The painting in question, "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata," completed in 1590, can be found in the museum's medieval and Renaissance galleries.

Complicating the issue is that while Salort-Pons told DIA board Chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. that Alan M. May, his father-in-law, would be the lender, Gargaro stands accused of not sharing that with the entire board of directors, as required by the museum's Professional Practices Policies and Guidelines. 

Both Gargaro and Salort-Pons insist they followed the museum's procedures properly. The DIA board has engaged a Washington, D.C.-based law firm, Crowell & Moring LLP, to look into the ethics of the matter.

Art experts generally agree that lesser-known artists might see a boost in the resale value of an artwork after exhibition at a museum of the DIA's stature.

"I can imagine where minor works would gain value by being exhibited at the DIA," said Birmingham art appraiser and consultant Ruth Rattner. "That’s part of the provenance," the documentation that lays out the artwork's history and justifies its sale price.

But she doesn't think that applies to an art-history superstar like El Greco, whose works have netted as much as $13.9 million at auction.

"The old-master market just doesn’t fluctuate in the way that markets for lesser-known works might," Rattner said, who also sits on the DIA's Collections Committee.

Joan D. Walker, president of DuMouchelles Art Gallery, the auction house in downtown Detroit, is also dubious on the issue.

"Any exhibitions help an artist," she said. "But I don't think display at the DIA is necessarily going to bump this painting's value."

Adam Williams, a Manhattan art dealer specializing in old masters who's sold to museums all over the country, said in a call from London, "I don’t understand what’s going on, because this is ridiculous. Every museum in America has trustees' and private collectors' pictures on loan. It doesn’t make any difference in their value at all."

This is the second work that May has lent the museum, and it appears the same steps were followed in 2010 with "An Allegory of Autumn," attributed to followers of French artist Nicolas Poussin.

At the time, Salort-Pons was a curator. He reportedly informed his boss, museum Director Graham Beal, who passed the information about the personal connection on to Gargaro. But that loan didn't generate the outcry the El Greco has.

Reached at the Whistleblower office, Tye concedes he's no expert on the worldwide art market.

"But even if there was no increase in value," he said, "the complaint talks at length about how the director and Gargaro failed to follow their own policies and guidelines. So the complaint does not rest on the increase of value."

He added, "The moral heart of this case is whether the leaders of an important public institution are willing to hold themselves to their own standards."

Whistleblower Aid, which supported the Ukraine whistleblower whose charge led to President Donald Trump's impeachment, argues that several steps could have prevented the current crisis.

Anyone with a stake in the loaned work, Tye says, ought to have revealed that interest to the entire board of directors, which he contends was not done. He also argues Gargaro, who knows lender May, ought to have recused himself because they're friends.

"Anyone with a personal interest in the display of the work of art has to file this disclosure with the DIA board's Committee on Professional Practices," Tye said, which would then consider the ethical ramifications of the loan.

"Had they gone through this process," he added, "the committee might well have approved the loan."

Overlooked in the current fray, some say, is how fortunate Detroiters are to have a painting of the quality of "St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata" at the DIA. The museum owns one El Greco painting, "Madonna and Child," but it was damaged in an botched restoration, and hasn't been on display for decades.

"This whole thing has been very upsetting to me," Rattner said. "We forget how lucky we are to be able to look at this painting."

Walker agreed. "Any time the DIA can exhibit an important work of art and give metro Detroiters a chance to view a really important piece," she said, "I’m all for it."

For his part, Williams sees nefarious forces at play in the present flap.

"Something else is going on here," he said. "Somebody at the museum must have it in for Salort-Pons, and they’re trying to make a case for it."

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