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In glittering dust and painted fragments

29 July 2013

Rosalba Catherina Barberigo DetroitEver since Plato, philosophers (and economists) have delighted in discussions that demonstrate the fallibility of our moral compasses. We start in comfortable territory, quite certain of the fixed points of right and wrong, and are taken through minor scenario adjustments around an ethical Möbius strip until we are back where we started, but upside down. Having shaken our confidence, the philosopher then puts forward his own position, to which we gratefully cling – but seldom do we apply the techniques he has taught us to show that that position too can look wrong in different circumstances. We have visited variants of this before in this blog (e.g. the impossible triangle). And, as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind challengingly demonstrated, the conclusion we usually return to is the one which emotionally feels most habitual.

Nowhere are such issues confronted with more discomfiture than in the vexed question of what to do with the outstanding art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (“DIA”) which, you will be aware, is located in a city which is now, in a word, bust. I need not explain how the decline of the automotive industry has led to this position, still less enumerate all the other avenues for repaying the city’s debts which are currently being explored. There is a good account in today’s Financial Times. And there has been useful coverage of the DIA’s plight and the recent visit by an auction house in The Art Newspaper (helpfully signalled by Art History News).

But most thought-provoking is the recent post by The Grumpy Art Historian; you should read it, as I’m not going to repeat the arguments he expresses with eminent clarity. He explodes a number of libertarian, free-market arguments to justify the sale and point us to the conclusion which most people reading this blog will welcome, that deaccessioning is wrong. I’d love to feel that he has put the debate to bed, but I’m not sure he will have silenced the dissenters. In particular the last part of his argument takes a national view of the economic hole, and suggests that to avoid the embarrassment of disposal outside the USA, and to avoid depleting the coffers of richer US museums (which should be reserved to acquire assets which are not yet in the public domain), the USA should meet the need by taxing the rich. The country after all has a low level of taxation. I doubt however if the Realpolitik would permit this approach, in the USA of all places, not least because of the strongly federalist approach. Detroit is seen as an entirely independent legal entity, not just from the USA, but even from the state of Michigan. Even in Britain, we can remember the days of the Greater London Council and its abolition. Washington isn’t going to let moral hazard rip by bailing out improvident cities.

No doubt powerful economic arguments can be summoned in this struggle against the Philistines: closing DIA would have adverse effects on the long-term prospects of Detroit reinventing itself as a desirable location for new industry, tourism etc. But for the purposes of this post, let us ignore all the complexity of the Detroit situation and consider the essential question – which is of course the ultimate deaccessioning question: is it ever right to sell off the assets for a greater good? Let’s reduce it still further: suppose the choice is between shutting DIA and selling the assets at auction, or declaring bankruptcy with the result that all the creditors and pensioners are left penniless?

The FT article infers that the DIA assets are safe because the state attorney-general has said that they are “held in public trust for the benefit of the city’s residents”. I haven’t examined the legal position in depth, but it wouldn’t surprise me that another lawyer might seek to argue that sale to pay the pensions of residents was within the powers of such a trust.

Is there a killer moral argument to rebut this?

One of the DIA assets that I particularly treasure is the Rosalba Carriera pastel of a young woman, Caterina Barbarigo, shown as Berenice (above) – not the heroine of Racine’s play, but the queen of Egypt who pledged to Aphrodite that she would cut off her beautiful hair if the goddess ensured the safe return from war of her husband, Πτολεμαῖος Εὐεργέτης, or Ptolomy the Benefactor. When he returned she did indeed make the sacrifice, placing her tresses in the temple to Aphrodite where they promptly disappeared, to the fury of Ptolomy. The court astronomer rescued the situation by persuading the king that the hair had ascended to become the star cluster that still bears her name.

The trouble is that benefactors in the modern world are not so gullible. Detroit may sacrifice her fine tresses, but there will soon be little or nothing to show for it. Money is fungible; great art collections are not. Each time we set aside the wishes of benefactors we eat away at the bonds of trust on which philanthropy is founded. Can we afford to alienate potential donors by cavalier disregard for the wishes of past philanthropists? Put like that the argument is a question of degree, where the quantum of the DIA sale dwarfs the potential proceeds of deaccessioning unpopular, second-rate works from the store. We need instead to safeguard an inviolable principle of trust.

In short, once accepted, charitable donations must remain inaccessible to political expediency. We don’t want politicians making these value judgements, whether or not they have the skills of a Maria Miller. And we certainly don’t want left-wing spenders to turn the moral hazard argument on its head, bankrupting cities in the knowledge that the art collection can pay for their mistakes.

I hope the attorney-general has been correctly reported, and that the trust deed is unassailable, but the lesson here is not just about Detroit.


Another deaccessioning story from The Art Newspaper tells us about Croydon Council’s decision to sell off what sounds like a remarkable collection of Chinese ceramics (good enough to attract the British Museum’s interest). Here’s the petition to stop it: I wonder what rights the donor’s residual legatees may have.

One Comment
  1. Thank you for the link. I agree with everything you say here; my post was certainly no more than a partial answer to some specific arguments, and you’re right that my case disregarded US institutional arrangements.

    The case for respecting donor intent is a strong one, but one which has sadly also been undermined – the National Gallery ignoring Mond, the Barber changing its trust deed, the Barnes saga and now the Burrell Collection overturning Burrell’s will. I’m with you on the need to safeguard the inviolable principle of trust, but again contemporary feeling is against us.

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