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If They Replaced Detroit's Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?

Sourche Photo: Detroit Institute of Arts; Dollar: Wikimedia Commons

Our homes command extensive views,

And with assistance from the Jews,

We have been able to dispose of

Rows and rows and rows of

Gainsboroughs and Lawrences,

Some sporting prints of Aunt Florence's,

Some of which were rather rude.

As that bit of anti-semitic doggerel by Noël Coward (from a song called “The Stately Homes of England”) suggests, the city of Detroit is not breaking new ground in facing the prospect of having to sell a few paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to make ends meet. There is a rich tradition of wastrels squandering the family fortune, then taking a few canvases to the pawnbroker’s.

Under pressure from the city’s creditors, Kevyn Orr, the emergency city manager appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, has retained Christie’s, the famous auction house, to evaluate the museum’s collection in case the movers show up some day soon to take the paintings off their hooks and the sculptures from their pedestals. They’ll have a hard time removing the museum’s most famous works—frescoes of men at work by the Mexican communist artist Diego Rivera—since frescoes are paint applied directly to plaster walls while they are still wet. The paint becomes part of the wall and hard to separate.

Is Mr. Orr serious? Or is he just trying to give the city a scare, to sober it up? It’s a standard consequence of bankruptcy, which Detroit declared in July (the largest city in the United States ever to do so), that filers risk losing ownership of their assets. The feckless hedge fund manager loses his Porsche; the feckless city loses its Caravaggio. There are differences, of course. The main difference is that, when a painting is removed from the wall of a museum and sold—probably to some vulgar Russian nouveau-billionaire, The New York Times sniffed the other day in almost those words—it most likely disappears from public view. The Times article, by art critic Roberta Smith, made no pretense of objectivity. She detects “the smell of amoral opportunism. ... Merely considering a priceless collection as an ‘asset’ ... is pernicious and predatory.” Most of the public commentary about the Detroit situation has been in that vein: To even think about selling works of art from the museum to pay Detroit’s debts would be about as philistine as you can get. Case closed.

Well, I don’t know. As a native Detroiter, I hope the art institute gets to keep its collection intact. But I’d like to see a bit more deliberation before everyone sinks into that high-minded conclusion. After all, the city owes mostly blameless investors some $18 billion. If it’s going to stiff these people, aren’t there more important assets to preserve? How about the neonatal unit at the city hospital? Art is important, but should it trump saving babies’ lives?

By not thinking outside the box, Detroit is losing an ideal opportunity to test a suggestion made three decades ago by a curmudgeonly Harvard political scientist named Edward Banfield. Banfield wrote a book called The Democratic Muse, in which he proposed that paintings and sculptures in public museums be sold and replaced by high-quality reproductions. Most museum visitors, he argued, couldn’t tell the difference (I certainly couldn’t) and thus would get the same experience from the fakes as they would from the originals. You can take this logic even further. Who needs a perfect reproduction, or even a good one? Most people’s appreciation of art doesn’t come from seeing original works in museums. It comes from posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts. Museums themselves sell these things. They bring pleasure to people. There must be some aesthetic value even in these crude artifacts.

Art snobs would be horrified by this plan, of course. Yet many of these art snobs have it both ways. On the one hand, they would insist that even the best-quality reproduction is no substitute for the original. On the other hand, they claim—and the professionals among them get paid for—the power to spot an original based on subtle differences in brush strokes or whether the paint was available in that color back in 1403, and similar matters that no layperson could detect. (Bernard Berenson, the most famous art critic of the twentieth century, made his reputation by pointing at paintings and declaring them fake. Then he made his fortune by pointing at paintings and declaring them genuine.) Yet if it takes an expert to detect the subtle differences that separate the original from a copy of it, how big a loss can it be if those subtle differences are not there?

The Times reported in August that an elderly Chinese immigrant painter had been implicated in an $80 million fraud. His name is Pei-Shen Qian. He’s not unknown in China, but in the United States, where he’d lived for three decades, he had never found a market for works signed “Pei-Shen Qian.” So he started signing them “Robert Motherwell,” and “Jackson Pollock,” and so on, and consciously imitated those artists’ styles. His paintings were not imitations of specific known works, they were new and different works, which he passed off as authentic creations of more famous painters. One of New York’s most prestigious galleries and a well-known art dealer failed to detect the deception, as did the Qian paintings’ buyers. The works were sold for millions each.

If the story stopped right there, we could say that it had a happy ending. The owners of the fake Pollocks and Motherwells—not knowing they were fake—got the tremendous pleasure of owning a painting by a famous painter, and presumably they got some pleasure just from looking at the paintings as well. The only losers were the estates of Motherwell, et al., who lost their monopoly Motherwell, et al., originals. But given how easy it turned out to be for Mr. Qian to produce new (albeit forged) Motherwells, the premium these famous artists commanded had been excessive. So everyone was happy. Until, that is, Qian got busted by the FBI, and millions of dollars of wealth was destroyed in an instant.

So. Should Detroit be forced to sell its art? I chicken out at this point in the argument. However much sense it might make in the abstract, it’s just too radical and too humiliating a step.

Unless, of course, it can be done secretly. Just pick a few of the most valuable paintings in their collection, hire Qian or others like him to produce fakes, and sell the real ones to those Russian businessmen The New York Times dislikes so much. Make the switcheroo late one night, pay off your debts in the morning. If anyone asks Detroit where it got the money all of a sudden, city officials can just say something vague about building cars.

Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large of The New Republic.