DETROIT – International auction house Christie's said on Monday it will appraise a portion of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection, which includes hundreds of works by Van Gogh, Bruegel the Elder, Renoir and other masters.
The move comes as a federal judge considers a state-appointed emergency manager's request to push the city into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Christie's also will assist and advise on valuing the artwork while leaving the pieces in the city's ownership, the New York-based firm said Monday on its website.
“At Christie’s, we are passionate about art and understand the importance of the contribution that institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts offer to the community and the world at large,” Christie’s said in a statement.
The DIA, considered one of the top art museums in the country, is home to hundreds of paintings and sculptures by famed artists. The city purchased many of the pieces in the collection years ago during more prosperous times.
That means they could be considered assets in a bankruptcy, a possibility that emergency manager Kevyn Orr warned DIA officials about earlier this year. Orr filed for bankruptcy on July 18.
"We understand that a valuation of all the city's assets (extending well beyond the art) is one of many steps that will be necessary for the legal system to reach a conclusion about the best long-term solution for the citizens of Detroit," the auction house said.
"We want to continue to focus our efforts on being a positive force in both the interests of the city of Detroit and its arts community, including working with our fellow arts professionals at the DIA and with the city to find alternatives to selling that would still provide the city with needed revenue."
Orr has said the city is insolvent and can't pay its bills. Detroit has a budget deficit of about $380 million. Long-term debt could be as much as $20 billion.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes has to determine whether Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy.
In a statement to The Detroit News, Orr said the valuation of the city's assets is an "integral part of the restructuring process."
Creditors have asked the city to put a value on its assets, Orr said Monday. Placing dollar figures on the pieces does not "portend a sale of any asset," he added.
"There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art," Orr said in a news release. "This valuation, as well as the valuation of other city assets ... is a step the city must take to reach resolutions with its creditors and secure a viable, strong future for Detroit and its residents."
The DIA told The Associated Press in a statement Monday afternoon that it would cooperate in Christie's appraisal process, but pointed to a formal opinion by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette that said city-owned DIA pieces can't be sold in a bankruptcy proceeding. He said in June that the artwork is held in a charitable trust for Michigan residents.
"We applaud the EM's focus on rebuilding the city, but would point out that he undercuts that core goal by jeopardizing Detroit's most important cultural institution," the DIA said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.