Will Detroit Sell Its Rembrandts, Van Goghs, Packards and the First Mustang to Pay its Bills?

He’s thinking, “Are they going to sell me and the cool cars across the street too?”

The city of Detroit’s ongoing financial crisis may lead to its takeover by the state of Michigan through the state’s emergency financial manager legislation. The law is controversial and some call it undemocratic but it is still the law and Detroit has been functionally insolvent for decades. In Michigan, emergency managers have sweeping powers to sell off municipal assets in order to balance the books.

If an EM is indeed appointed by Gov. Snyder, and that manager does start looking for assets to sell, it turns out that Detroit has an asset that most major cities don’t have, an asset estimated to be worth a billion dollars or more. A series of mayors have called Belle Isle and the Detroit Zoo the “city’s jewels”. Belle Isle, though, is just an island park in a city filled with vacant buildings and empty lots. Selling off the Zoo’s animals, many of them endangered species, would be problematic. The mentioned billion dollar asset, though, would find eager bidders.

Detroit Institute of Arts Rivera Mural detail

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. The DIA building itself is artistically valuable, incorporating 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 African and indigenous art. Though no emergency manager has been appointed by the governor for Detroit yet, even the outside possibility that some of the DIA’s collection could be sold off has gotten Michigan’s art community up in arms.

In another irony, a less well known collection of artifacts more closely related to Detroit’s role as the Motor City could also be sold off to raise funds for the city coffers. The 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, 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 house involved, though, would more likely be RM, Gooding, Mecum or Barrett-Jackson, not Christie’s or Sotheby’s. I’m talking, of course, about the museum (and city’s) collection of cars.

Cadillac Clark Street Plant “Body Drop” – Detroit Historical Museum

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. 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 so the public can see them. Contrary to published reports, according to the Museum’s curator their cars are not mostly languishing in storage 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 Detroit Automobile Co. Leland was famous for his engineering skills, making Cadillac the standard of the world. The Dodge brothers were, by reputation as Detroit machinists and engineers, second to only Leland.  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. The Henry Ford Museum owns Clara (Mrs. Henry) Ford’s personal Anderson made Detroit Electric car. The Detroit Historical Museum owns the Detroit Electric driven by the wife of Henry B. Joy, who ran Packard.


Helen Newberry Joy’s Detroit Electric. Henry B. Joy ran Packard.

Stout Scarabs are rare, perhaps 9 of the experimental cars were made, most of aluminum. The Gilmore Car Museum 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.

Detroit Historical Museum’s Chrysler Turbine Car, currently on display at the Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, MI

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 three on display in Michigan, at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, at the Henry Ford Museum, and the Detroit Historical Museum’s Turbine Car is on display at the Gilmore. 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 a million dollar car.

William Stout’s fiberglass Scarab Prototype, currently on display at the Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, MI

In recent years guys show car collectors like Joe Bortz have educated enthusiasts about the historical and monetary value of vehicles that automakers used to crush rather casually. Last year’s show car is 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 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 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.

Ford Cougar II concept

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.

1951 Packard Pan American show car

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.

1952 Packard Pan American show car

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 this past year. Packards tend to go for premium prices to begin with 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.

Ford Mustang II concept, 1963

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.


Photo: Detroit Historical Museum

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.

Photo: Detroit Historical Museum

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. Based on the body used and the equipment, 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 factor 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 Ms. Allen 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.

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 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.

Descriptions of the Detroit Historical Museum’s automotive collection can be found here.

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