Detroit’s bankruptcy could spell good-bye for Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody and Ed Kean

(CNN) — Could a wooden marionette help solve Detroit’s budgetary woes? With Detroit’s declaration on Thursday of bankruptcy, some of the city’s creditors may think so.

The museum of the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to 60,000 pieces of art, is also home to the original Howdy Doody marionette puppet that was the star of its own 1950s-era children’s show. It was acquired in 2001, according to the DIA’s director of communications.

“It is estimated that the marionette could sell at auction for $400,000 to $500,000,” said Gary Busk, a puppet collector who was featured on the television program “Antiques Road Show.”

That would hardly make a dent in the city’s immense $18 billion debt. But, despite an opinion from the state’s attorney general that appeared to assure Howdy would stay, legal experts say there’s still a risk he could wind up packing his bags and riding into the sunset with many of the museum’s other residents.

The arts institute’s director, Graham Beal, maintains that DIA’s collection is among the top six in the Western Hemisphere. While he could not specify a value, Beal told CNN in May that it would likely be in the billions of dollars.

It was then that that a request by Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, for an inventory of holdings sparked alarm among Detroit residents and museum administrators that the DIA’s collection could be sold to help pay off the city’s debt.

Then, in June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion stating that Detroit can’t sell the DIA’s art, although the city technically owns the collection.

“It is my opinion, therefore, that the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is held by the City of Detroit in charitable trust for the people of Michigan, and no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations,” Schuette told CNN in a written statement.

He said that he recognized the extreme financial hardships the city is experiencing, and the challenges the city faces, but argued that selling the artwork would “damage not only the city’s but the state’s cultural commonwealth.”

But the opinion could be for naught, said Eric Scorsone of Michigan State University prior to Thursday’s declaration.

“It’s certainly better than nothing, but a state attorney general’s opinion is certainly not going to be definitive in federal bankruptcy court,” Scorsone said. “I don’t think that is going to carry a huge amount of weight.”

Laura Martell, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, echoed that sentiment.

“He just issued an opinion, which is not binding on anyone and certainly has no legal effect in a bankruptcy case,” she said. “A bankruptcy judge may or may not find it persuasive on the merits of its analysis, but it has no binding effect.”

Bill Nowling, spokesman for emergency manager Orr, said that “nothing is being considered for sale.”

“All of the city’s creditors have asked about the DIA and whether it has been valued — it has not — and some creditors have said everything that isn’t nailed down should be sold to pay them,” Nowling wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “That won’t happen because the emergency manager’s proposed restructuring plan is focused on restoring essential city services.”

However, Detroit’s creditors say promises were made and debts must be paid.

“If they’re talking about not being solvent when they have these assets, they do still have some degree of solvency by selling these assets,” said Peter Hayes, a managing director at BlackRock Inc., an investment management corporation whose investors are owed approximately $200 million by the city of Detroit.

Even as signs of the coming bankruptcy grew stronger, the DIA’s officials remained resolute in their determination to protect their collection.

“Our position hasn’t changed. We only sell works of art to buy works of art,” Beal said. “We are not given works of art so that we can settle debts made (during) decades of mismanagement and corruption.”

Howdy Doody is a marionette in the image of a freckled-face boy dressed in cowboy attire. “The Howdy Doody Show” ran on NBC from 1947 to 1960. One of Muppet creator Jim Henson’s Kermit the Frog puppets is also among the DIA’s puppet collection, which boasts around 800 pieces.

The DIA was founded in 1885 and houses more than 100 galleries, a lecture and recital hall, an art reference library, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory, according to the museum’s website.

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