Art as Collateral: Detroit Institute of Arts Follows Plundering Past

Share Button
Does Detroit have the right to sell off the works of art in the DIA? Image courtesy of GSGeorge

Does Detroit have the right to sell off the works of art in the DIA? Image courtesy of GSGeorge

Are we shocked to hear that one of North America’s greatest cities, Detroit, is filing for bankruptcy?

Are we surprised to hear that the priceless collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts might be used as a bargaining tool to satisfy the greedy demands of creditors for the city’s amassed debt of over $18 billion dollars?

The city of Detroit owns the art collection, one of the first and finest public collections in all of North America. But does that give it rights to use the collection as collateral?

Detroit Art Collection: Auctioned to Highest Bidder?

Detroit has hired the New York auction house, Christies, to further appraise the collection. It’s starting to sound like these masterpieces might yet face the auction block. And all because, as the museum’s director, Graham Beal, said to ABC News, “The creditors aren’t interested in the future of Detroit, they just want their money back.”

As Elizabeth Dwoskin points out in Bloomberg Businessweek, the collection is valued at over $15 billion. Perhaps the selling of the city’s pride and joy, not to mention selling its history, would just about cover the deficit. Thomas Campbell, Art Director of the Metropolitan Museum (quoted in Bloomberg Businessweek) described the city’s intent as a “cultural fire sale.” Others call the motion pure recklessness.

Is it unprecedented? Is it reckless? Or is it a justifiable spoil of war, so to speak? Should we be surprised? Should we be shocked? Perhaps not. Art has often faced the auction block. It has been ransacked, stolen, and even confiscated for reasons that defy reason.

War and greed are often the cause of this brutal plundering. Humans certainly have a long history of taking what they believe is their right to possess.

Art Theft: The Spoils of War

Soldiers throughout history have plundered. In earlier times, conquering soldiers reaped their rewards, and often their payment, by stealing from the very people that they had conquered. The Romans called this spolia (Latin for plunder), more specifically, spolia opima, the plundering of weapons and armour from the enemy king.

Evidence of such plunder has been discovered in sunken Roman ships, like the famous Antikythera shipwreck just off the Greek coastline, that has attracted divers for over a century. This Roman shipwreck was filled with treasures like vases, statues and the famed astronomical clock, all plundered from the enemy, the Greeks.

The Greeks were just as astute at filling their treasury with stolen goods. In fact, every conquering army the world over has done the same.

  • The ancient armies of the Chinese and the Japanese, and every other Far Eastern power, plundered both human and material treasures.
  • The British Empire plundered as it conquered and ruled around the world.

The early explorers of North America, the voyageurs, the so-called historical preservationists, the treasure-hunters and many others, also took from the First Nations of North America, as others did to the aboriginals the world over. The taking in these cases was often under the guise of preserving precious relics and artifacts. But was it preserving? Or was it, quite bluntly put, stealing?

Philosopher from the Antikythera shipwreck (between 3rd and 1st centuries BC, bronze) National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Philosopher from the Antikythera shipwreck (between 3rd and 1st centuries BC, bronze) National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Sculptor unknown, Image courtesy of B. Foley.

Nazis Confiscated Art

Then there were the Nazis. Between 1939 and 1945, hundreds of thousands of valuable works of art were plundered, primarily from the Jews. These works were crated and shipped, many to the town of Linz in Austria where Hitler planned to create a cultural centre like no other after his victory.

The invading German army quite literally ‘raped’ the Europeans of their art treasures. Spoils of war? Hitler viewed himself as a conquering Caesar. He strongly believed that that which he conquered, he owned, including the art. He felt justified in his growing collection. Was he? After the war (and continuing to this day), efforts are being made to restore to the rightful owners countless works of art plundered by the Nazis. Can it be done? Will it ever be done?

Art Smuggling: Modern Spoilage

Detroit is not alone in its financial crisis. It is not the first, nor will it be the last, community to suffer the shame of losing its precious treasures. With the crisis in many European countries becoming dire, especially places like Greece, ordinary citizens are turning into plunderers in a bid for survival, smuggling treasured Greek artifacts out of the country. Sadly, these treasures have been found in such faraway places as Columbia, where drug dealers are turning their attentions to the stolen artifact trade.

The Pakistan Observer reported illegal digging at Mohra Maradu Stupa and Monastery on the border of Punjab and Khyber Pakhuntkhwa. This site dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Since the antiquities are still mostly buried underground, they belong to this site. UNESCO ruling, government intervention – thieves will stop at nothing when there is a need to fulfill and that need is garnered in greed. Similar to the Detroit bankruptcy? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps it is not so different after all.

Economies are fluctuating around the world and countries are struggling to survive with massive financial bailouts. Sadly, as has always been the case, the value of the arts is only considered in terms of how it can sustain and assist the financial prowess of the powers that be. Art as collateral? It appears as if art always has been that and more.


Bloomberg. Bankrupt Detroit may flood market with masterpieces. (2013).  Accessed August 13, 2013.

Bradsher, Greg. Documenting Nazi Plunder of European Art. (1997). The Record. Accessed August 14, 2013.

Glor, Jeff. Detroit art caught in bankruptcy battle. (2013). CBS News. Accessed August 13, 2013.

Share Button

© Copyright 2013 Emily-Jane Hills Orford, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *