DETROIT (Reuters) - Famed auction house Christie's said on Monday it had been hired by Detroit to appraise part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' collection as the city looks for ways to pay at least $18 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities after applying for bankruptcy protection in July.
Christie's said in a statement that it would advise the city on how to realize value for the art without selling it.
"The City must know the current value of all its assets, including the city-owned collection at the DIA," Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr said in a statement on Monday. "There has never been, nor is there now, any plan to sell art."
The possible sale of art from the 60,000-piece collection has drawn criticism. The museum has said the art cannot be sold because it is held in a charitable trust for the people of Michigan, a position backed by state Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Annmarie Erickson, chief operating officer of the Detroit Institute of Art, said she had heard through media reports that Christie's had been hired by the city.
"We are deeply disappointed that Christie's is taking this action, which we believe is contrary to the well being of the museum," Erickson said.
Orr has not ruled out the sale of Detroit Institute of Art treasures to help the city pay its bills.
In the past, city officials have said that no option should be ignored. Some union officials have said that pensions and other worker benefits should outweigh the need to keep the collection.
"We understand that a valuation of all the city's assets, extending well beyond the art, is one of many steps that will be necessary for the legal system to reach a conclusion about the best long term solution," Christie's said.
The museum's collection includes an 1887 self portrait of Vincent van Gogh and a 27-panel fresco by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Roughly 5 percent of the collection was bought with city funds, according to Tim Burns, executive assistant to the museum's director.
The museum has hired bankruptcy attorney Richard Levin and set aside funds for legal expenses.
Erickson said two Christie's officials had gone to the museum in June but had not returned since.
"They then informed us that they would be suspending their work. This is the first that we've heard that they've been resuming that work," Erickson said.
Alternatives to flat-out sales include creating a public-private partnership to run the museum or leasing some of the finest pieces in the collection for a global exhibition that museums would pay to show, arts experts said.
"For example, if the works were sold to donors willing to give the art back to the museum, that's a possibility," said L. Eden Burgess, an attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners who advises on auctions, purchases and sales.
"That way the art could stay in the city but there still could be value realized from it. That's one possibility. There may be others as well," Burgess said.
Erickson said the museum, which has faced financial difficulties for years, has not been able to find a way to monetize the collection while maintaining its public mission.
The city said it expects Christie's to have completed its work by early fall.
Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman and Joseph Lichterman; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Toni Reinhold