Detroit Industry, north wall, Diego Rivera, 1932-33, fresco. Detroit Institute of Arts

Hearing that the official hired to sort out Detroit’s financial mess has asked for a valuation of the celebrated collection in the Detroit Institute of Arts, perhaps with a view to selling off its Van Goghs, Picassos, Matisses, Rembrandts and the rest, brought to mind remarks by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization program.

“It is very common with individuals or estates when they run into financial difficulties to find that they have to sell some of their assets,” he said in his inimitable aristocratic drawl. “First the Georgian silver goes. Then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go.” Finally, even the “two Rembrandts that were still left” are put under the hammer.

Detroit is bust and about $11 billion in debt. The city owns the DIA and its fine collection of art, which is priceless. Estimating the value of such a cache of world-renowned pictures and sculptures is impossible as all its masterpieces are unique. Nonetheless, some guess a fire sale would raise about $2.5 billion.

The man charged with balancing the books says it is premature to talk of selling the art, but claims city creditors, who will be asked to take cents on the dollar in lieu of what is owed them, are bound to demand that all the city’s assets, including the DIA collection, are sold before they will agree terms. Phooey! To send in the appraisers is to invite creditors to demand the sale.