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To sell, or not to sell?

Detroit Museum Appraisal Offers Glimpse Into the Finicky Art Market

The Detroit Industry fresco, conceived by Diego Rivera, installed at The Detroit Institute of Arts

Photograph by Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

The Detroit Industry fresco, conceived by Diego Rivera, installed at The Detroit Institute of Arts

As Detroit roils through its bankruptcy, among the most contentious debates is whether the city’s art museum should be forced to liquidate its collection to pay back creditors. In preparation for an August trial, the city and the Detroit Institute of Arts hired Artvest, an art investment firm, to evaluate the collection and the possibilities for its sale. Its report (PDF), made public July 9, lays bare the large and small things that lead art buyers to bid up the price for some pieces while shunning others.

Overall, Artvest valued the collection at $2.8 billion to $4.6 billion, but it said the works would never fetch even close to that amount on the open market. That’s because the controversy that would accompany a sale might keep some major buyers away and selling so many works at once would flood the market. Artvest estimates the collection would fetch anywhere from half its value to as little as $850 million.

The Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection largely comes from eras that have fallen out of favor with buyers in recent years. When you hear about the booming art market or even a possible bubble, the rising prices are almost exclusively in postwar and contemporary works. Prewar American art and works by Old Masters, for example, are at about the same levels as a decade ago.

Artvest made specific estimates for more than 400 works, in many cases explaining its reasoning. Those notes, the juiciest of which were tweeted out by Detroit News reporter Robert Snell, show how beyond preferences for broad eras of art, art buyers are picky about what they want to buy with biases on everything from color palette to subject matter.

Take portraiture. Buyers prefer paintings of women to men.

They like bright colors.

For both men and women.

“Young women in white dresses are amongst the most saleable of Sargents portraits,” the report says. Maternal subjects are good, too. “Cassatt is in a down market right now, however this work being a classic mother and pretty young girl and a park picture makes it more desirable than most.”

Cows are also a plus.

But religious subject aren’t.

If you have a painting of Venice, boats are best.

People like subjects that reflect their lives and interests. Paintings that depict music do well, for example. And in describing an 1859 landscape by Albert Bierstadt, the report says, “An Early work of the west with Indian Encampment, this would be sought after in the current market, where western paintings are strong due to the strength of the oil industry.”

Some preferences are more obvious. As the report says for a mid-18th century Italian work, “Paintings of bare breasted beautiful women always have a strong market presence.”


Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @kyweise.

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