It was once hypothetical, but now that the City of Detroit has filed for municipal bankruptcy, and since no legislation has been passed in Lansing to prevent it, it’s possible that a bankruptcy judge will order that city assets, including the art collection of the city owned Detroit Institute of Arts, estimated to be worth $2.5 billion or more, be sold to satisfy creditors, mostly public employee unions and city pensioneers. A less well known collection of artifacts more closely related to Detroit’s role as the Motor City, and perhaps nearer to the hearts of our readers (not that you’re Philistines who can’t appreciate fine art, but this is not The Truth About Art), could also be sold off to give creditors a few more pennies on the dollar.
A city once famous for its heavy industry and more recently infamous for its poverty and urban decay owns one of the world’s finest art collections, the Detroit Institute of Arts. Founded in the 1800s by James E. Scripps, who started what is now the Detroit News, and supported for most of the 20th century with the wealth created by the American automobile industry, the DIA is one of America’s most significant art collections with over 65,000 items, a number of of them individually worth many millions of dollars, including works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Warhol, Van Eyck, Copley, Rothko, Matisse, and Bruegel, each of those worth tens of millions or more. Selling just a dozen of the museum’s most valuable pieces would fetch close to a billion dollars by themselves. The DIA building itself is artistically valuable and itself worth many millions since it incorporates the world famous Diego Rivera murals commissioned by Edsel Ford. One of Rodin’s own castings of The Thinker sits in front of the building, a gift from Horace Rackham, Henry Ford’s lawyer and early business partner. The Institute’s collection is wide ranging, including old masters, American masters, modern art and a fine collection of art from African, Oceanic and New World cultures, originally endowed by Edsel Ford’s widow, Eleanor, with a million dollar bequest upon her death in 1972.
However, the Detroit Institute of Arts is not the only museum and collection that the city of Detroit owns. It also owns the Detroit Historical Museum. An agreement between the Detroit Historical Society and the city in 2006 transferred operations to the non-profit Society, ensuring the museum’s survival when the city could no longer fund it. The city, though, retained legal ownership of the Museum and its collections. While its true that most of the historical artifacts owned by the Historical museum and related institutions pale in auction value when compared to the the fine art in the DIA, the historical museum has a number of pieces that would unquestionably fetch six and possibly seven figures at auction. The auction houses involved, though, would more likely be RM, Gooding, Mecum or Barrett-Jackson, not Sotheby’s, though on second thought, many of these items wouldn’t be out of place at one of Sotheby’s or Bonham’s high-dollar specialty auctions. I’m talking, of course, about the museum (and city’s) collection of cars
Because the Detroit Historical Museum’s building doesn’t have a large gallery for cars, the vast majority of the museum’s collection of about six dozen historically significant automobiles cannot be seen at the museum on Woodward in Detroit’s New Center region. As a result, the collection is just not very well known to the public.
Only four cars are rotated in and out of storage for public display at the DHM, along with the Cadillacs and components associated with the Clark Street Cadillac plant’s assembly line “body drop” that the museum salvaged and installed as a permanent exhibit.
Some of the remaining cars in the collection are kept in controlled storage at Historic Fort Wayne but at any one time half or more of the cars in the collection are given out on loan to other museums or car shows so the public can see them. Contrary to numerous published reports, according to the Museum’s curator their cars are not mostly languishing in bubbles.
Now one would expect the Detroit Historical Museum to have historically significant models of cars, but looking over the catalog of the automotive collection, there are a number of vehicles whose specific history and/or provenance makes them not just significant but effectively one of a kind and potentially very valuable to collectors. Due to its location in Detroit the museum has been the beneficiary of gifts of cars directly from the domestic car companies themselves and also from the personal collections of automobile executives and their families.
For example, the museum owns Henry Leland’s personal 1905 Cadillac. Leland founded Cadillac along with Henry Ford’s backers, out of the remnants of Ford’s second failed automotive venture, the Henry Ford Company. Leland was famous for his engineering skills, making Cadillac the standard of the world.
The Dodge brothers were, by reputation, among the best machinists and engineers in Detroit, second to only Leland. Before they went into business selling their own cars in 1914, they supplied Henry Ford with everything from engines to complete rolling chassis. John Dodge’s personal 1919 Dodge Brothers four door sedan is also in the collection, donated by his widow. His brother Horace’s 1919 Dodge coupe was gifted to the museum by Horace’s widow as well. Electric cars were popular with other women of Detroit’s automotive aristocracy. Clara (Mrs. Henry) Ford drove a Detroit Electric that’s currently in the collection of The Henry Ford Museum. The Detroit Historical Museum owns the Detroit Electric driven by the wife of Henry B. Joy, who ran Packard.
Stout Scarabs are rare, perhaps 9 of the experimental cars were made, most of aluminum. The Gilmore Car Museum near Kalamazoo currently houses William Stout’s (who also designed the Ford Trimotor Airplane) personal fiberglass bodied Scarab. That one of a kind car is owned by the Detroit Historical Museum as well, donated by Stout himself.
Not one of a kind but bound to draw serious money if it was auctioned is the museum’s Chrysler Turbine Car, one of only 50 that were made and 9 that still exist. Chrysler donated this Turbine Car directly to the museum in 1967. Jay Leno owns one but most are in museums. For example, there are two on public display in Michigan, one at the Henry Ford Museum, and the Detroit Historical Museum’s Turbine Car is on display at the Gilmore. A third Turbine owned by the Chrysler company is at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, but that recently was closed to the public.
Museums can be just as acquisitive as private collectors. If this Chrysler Turbine were to be auctioned off to pay Detroit’s bills, rich collectors and museums would be outbidding each other and I’m sure that it would be at least a million dollar car. The museum also owns a Chrysler Turbine crate motor, a complete drivetrain actually.
In recent years, concept and show car collectors like Joe Bortz have demonstrated the historical and monetary value of vehicles that automakers used to crush rather casually. There was a time when last year’s show car was yesterday’s news. Today, though, a 50 year old show car is a museum piece and car companies now save their concept and show cars and don’t destroy them as they used to do. The Detroit Historical Museum owns a number of prototype and concept cars, from a period when few of those survived, that would get attention from serious collectors. Ford Motor Company in particular has been generous with the DHM, donating the museum’s 1963 Cougar II concept and the ’65 Ford XD Cobra concept, Ford styling chief Gene Bordinat’s personal car. How much do you think an original 1960s vintage small block Shelby Cobra chassis is worth? Both the Cougar II and the XD Cobra were built on such a Cobra chassis. The Cougar II still has its original 260 CI V8, not a 289, so that’s a very early chassis. Add the one-off show car bodies and direct-from-FoMoCo provenance and either one of those cars could get very serious (or silly, depending on how you look at it) money on the auction block.
During its 2003 centennial year, Ford auctioned off scores of concept and show cars to raise money for charity so it’s not that uncommon to find a Ford concept in a museum or private collection and they do cross the auction block from time to time.
Packard concept cars, on the other hand, are a bit rarer since Packard was out of business before that ’63 Cougar II was even built. The city of Detroit, via the history museum, owns the only 1951 Packard Pan American convertible show car and one of five 1952 Pan Americans that Packard built for the show circuit. The Pan Americans were Packard’s idea of a sporty two seater, with bodies that were chopped and channeled. The ’51 Pan American was also known as the Macauley Speedster, after Packard stylist Edward Macauley, who used it as a personal car and whose family (which had a long relationship with Packard) donated it to the museum. Macauley’s diamond encrusted logo is on the doors.
Fairly mundane American convertibles from the 1950s now regularly get well over $100K at auction. Quasi show cars like the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Fiesta convertibles from 1953 have been fetching between $150K and $200K recently year. Nice mid 1950s Packard Caribbean convertibles tend to go for those kinds of prices as well so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pan American show cars sold for a quarter of a million dollars or more each, were they to come up for sale at an auction.
While Ford concepts are not that uncommon, there is one Ford prototype in the Museum’s collection that would undoubtedly get frenzied bidding going into the stratosphere because in a manner of speaking it’s the first Mustang, the “Mustang II” concept of 1963. As I said, Ford has sold off and donated concepts and prototypes before but it’s hard to imagine Ford letting this particular pony leave their corral. Well, that is until you consider that the company donated the 1963-65 pre-production Mustang prototype to the Museum in 1975, when it was busy selling Pinto based production Mustang IIs as economy cars and wasn’t touting Ford’s muscle car heritage.
That heritage included the original Mustang II concept. The Mustang I concept was a Mustang in name only, as we know that name today. It was a small midengine four cylinder powered two-seater that today is, like Clara Ford’s Detroit Electric, in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum. By 1963, the decision was made to go with a Falcon based four seater.
Based on a pre-production 1964 1/2 Mustang body, the Mustang II carried over a few of the styling cues from the Mustang I, popular on the show circuit, while in general previewing the design of the first generation of production Mustangs. Equipped with a Cobra 289 V8 and four on the floor, the Mustang II was shown in 1963 and in early 1964, before the introduction of the production Mustang at the New York World’s fair in April of that year. As close as it is to the production car, I say that the Mustang II concept could lay strong claim to the title of the first Mustang.
Mustang enthusiasts about about as fanatic as they come. Resto-modded “Shelbys” and “Eleanors” that left the factory as six cylinder secretaries’ cars can now draw prices seen by genuine Shelby Mustangs not that long ago. Those stupid George Barris Sonny & Cher Mustang convertibles went for big money (okay, so they were bought by the least knowledgeable car collector in America, but someone was bidding against Tammy Allen). Enough people collect vintage IMC scale model kits of the Mustang II concept that Lindberg put them back into production.
Hot Wheels has also recently sold die-cast models of the car to collectors as well. With that kind of interest in the car itself and the level of enthusiasm shown by Mustang fans, how much do you think the real Mustang II concept would go for if the city of Detroit auctioned it off? My guess is that the Henry Ford Museum just might outbid and other well-heeled collectors in order to put the Mustang II concept next to the Mustang I concept in that museum’s new Driving America exhibit, that opened in early 2012.
Nobody’s selling any of these cars just yet, though. As with the art institute, many of the items were donated conditionally and lawsuits would likely tie up any potential sale of the city’s art and collectible cars for years. Still, the possibility of the sale of city of Detroit assets may turn out to be a good thing. Before you read this post you probably didn’t associate the city of Detroit with fine art. Now you know about the DIA’s collection and something about the very unique and cool cars in the Detroit Historical Museum’s collection as well.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS