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?

Click to Read Page Two: The Plundering of the Nazis