As someone who grew up in Detroit and its suburbs, I am sad about the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Arts may have to sell off much of its collection due to the bankruptcy of its owner, the Detroit city government. So I share much of the dismay expressed by Jed Perl in this article in the New Republic. But I'm also sympathetic to some of the arguments Virginia Postrel made in her Bloomberg column last June. She notes that most of the DIA's masterpieces were purchased with municipal funds and that local donors never provided the museum with a significant endowment. Rather coolly she writes:
“A sale to satisfy Detroit’s creditors would certainly be a tragedy for the institution and its local constituents. But if buyers were limited to other museums, possibly even to museums in the U.S., the works wouldn’t disappear from public view. A sale could be a huge boon for art lovers (and tourists) in cities that had the bad luck to grow primarily in the second half of the 20th century — and that are still growing today. The public trust is no less served by art in Atlanta, Phoenix or Seattle than it is by art in Detroit.”
The history of fine arts is, among other things, a history of the creation and then the dispersal of great collections. For a fascinating example, see art historian Francis Haskell's posthumously published The King's Pictures, the story of how King Charles I and his courtiers the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of Hamilton and the Earl of Arundel amassed great collections in the 1620s and 1630s and then how these collections were sold off under the Parliament that rebelled against Charles. Some went into private collections, never to be seen by the public again; many were purchased by agents of King Philip IV of Spain and Cardinal Mazarin of France, and can be seen in the Prado and the Louvre today; some have simply disappeared without trace. Haskell writes:
“When on 10 January 1642 Charles I left London for the last time until his forced return to be tried and executed seven years later, the concentration of great paintings in his capital was so great that, if on that day, you had chosen to go for a stroll through the centre of town it would have taken you barely half an hour to pass the principal palaces in which were to be found masterpieces of a kind unrivalled, in quantity and quality, in any other single city in Europe, except for Rome and perhaps Madrid, and capable indeed of standing comparison with what could be seen in all of them combined.” But the Titians and Veroneses, Raphaels and Holbeins were sold off, never to be seen in England again. “The dispersal of the Stuart collections — even more than their formation — represents one of the most important movements in the history of European taste and collecting as a whole,” Haskell writes. “The artistic map of Europe was transformed, so that it is no exaggeration to claim that a series of sales between 1643 and 1654 decidedly influenced which works have entered national canons of art history, and even affected their holiday destinations.”
Haskell provides a vivid picture of the Stuart era collections in their brief stay in London, one as affectionate and affecting as Jed Perl’s beautiful evocation of the DIA. But Haskell’s story is a reminder that a sales of the Detroit masterpieces would not be the first, or the largest, such episode in art history.