Bummer.  Someone has to pay the bills.  Time to give it up.

It could be the most expensive art sale ever. So expensive, in fact, that no-one even knows how much it could make. The multi-billion dollar collection of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), packed with masterpieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, and many other painters, as well as sculpture, furniture and ancient Greek pottery, is under real threat of ending up under the auctioneer’s hammer.

Despite a chorus of disapproval, Christie’s has been called in to put a price on part of DIA’s holdings, which comprise thousands of items. Just 40 of them, the greatest treasures, could be worth an eye-popping $2.5 billion, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Why? Because the city of Detroit is on the brink of bankruptcy, with an estimated $18 billion in debts. So it is looking at all its assets – which include the art – to see what it can sell off.

Detroit is an extreme, and tragic case: the art is literally irreplaceable. While its case is unique – the sale is by no means a done deal, and would be to pay the city’s debts, not the DIA’s own – it comes amid a mounting tide of museum disposals around the country.

With museums staring at falling incomes and rising costs, the temptation to raid the basements is getting stronger. Also driving the trend is the current fashion for hip contemporary art: this month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced it was off-loading one of its two paintings by Edward Hopper, to kick-start an acquisition fund for – you guessed it – contemporary art. So Hopper’s East Wind over Weehawken, is going on the block at Christie’s in December, with an estimate of $22m-$28m. Poignantly, the bleak street scene from 1934 features a sign scrawled in scarlet letters in the foreground – “For Sale”.

Detroit’s art sell-off: Flogging the family silver?.

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