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Detroit area tries to protect world-class art from bankruptcy

A detail of the facade of the Detroit Institute of Arts is seen in Detroit, Michigan June 2, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A detail of the facade of the Detroit Institute of Arts is seen in Detroit, Michigan June 2, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Joseph Lichterman

DETROIT (Reuters) - A Detroit metropolitan county is threatening to cut funding to the city's art museum if Detroit's bankruptcy filing leads to the sale of any of its collection which includes works by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt and Diego Rivera.

The Oakland County Art Institute Authority will vote next Tuesday on whether to stop distributing property tax revenue to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) if Detroit's emergency manager decides to sell any of its artwork or divert funds from the museum to pay the city's creditors.

Last year, voters in suburban Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties approved a property tax levy to provide the DIA up to $23 million annually for its operations. Oakland County taxpayers were expected to provide $9.8 million of the total.

The authority is taking the vote to put the city "on notice," said chairman Thomas Guastello. He said Detroit would be violating the counties' agreement with the DIA if it moved to monetize any DIA assets to pay the city's debt after it filed for the largest ever municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

"This violates the core of the issue that was brought to the voters," he said.

Macomb and Wayne County, where Detroit is located, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The DIA has one of the top six art collections in the United States, according to the museum's website. It is known for a self portrait by Vincent Van and vast murals by Mexican artist Diego Rivera depicting "Detroit Industry."

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder have repeatedly said that they do not want to sell any of the museum's collection. Orr told Reuters last week that he's not ruled out any options for ways to monetize the collection.

Orr's spokesman Bill Nowling said the city does not plan to sell the DIA art but is open to alternative plans that may raise money for the city. Christie's, the auction house Orr hired to estimate a value for the collection, may provide options to a sale, Nowling said.

"Christie's wants to come to the table with alternatives that generate revenue, substantial revenue, without changing the ownership of the art," Nowling said. "They didn't just want to come and value the art. They wanted to come and find a solution that would preserve the art.

The museum and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette have contended that the art cannot be sold because it is held in a charitable trust for the people of Michigan.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall; editing by Andrew Hay)

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