Forget museum art – Banksy might help Detroit

December 5, 2013

By Richard Beales and Kevin Allison
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.

Christie’s says artworks owned by bankrupt Detroit could fetch up to $866 million. But there’s no need to stop there. With 78,000 abandoned buildings and a Banksy tag potentially worth $1 million or more, graffiti could help save the day.

Motor City needs to raise funds where it can, as well as slashing its obligations, if it’s to emerge sustainably from bankruptcy. It’s a controversial idea to sell civic art to fix a financial problem, but it shouldn’t be ruled out – especially when fewer than 3,000 of the items in the 66,000-strong Detroit Institute of Art collection are at issue, at least in the auction house’s initial appraisal.

The top end of the Christie’s estimate amounts to nearly 10 percent of the city’s $11.5 billion of unsecured obligations, as defined by Kevyn Orr, the city’s emergency manager. That’s enough to make a difference, whether to the city’s pensioners or to other creditors. Yet Detroit could try additional creative fundraising ideas.

Take the recent surge in contemporary art prices, which has carried along graffiti maestro Banksy. A mural entitled “Slave Labour” that was removed from a location in London’s Wood Green sold for more than 750,000 pounds ($1.1 million) in June, according to news reports.

If Banksy could be persuaded to daub just 1 percent of Detroit’s empty buildings with scenes worth that much, the total value would match the museum art assessed by Christie’s – and buyers might even pay to dismantle empty buildings so that they could take their purchases away.

Of course that assumes way too much activity for one elusive graffiti artist – even if he fancied a sojourn in Detroit, which has become a magnet for creative types in recent years. Anyway, the supply glut would surely hit prices. But once Orr opens the door to art sales, he can think bigger. With contemporary art wildly popular among the finance set, the well-heeled bosses of the hedge funds which now surely own some of the city’s bonds might even appreciate the chance to bid on a Motown Banksy.

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