Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The arrangement brokered between Eurozone leaders and Greece is severe. It’s a deal that Detroiters will recognize.
Over this past weekend, Greece agreed to demands from Germany and other Eurozone leaders that may keep the country in the eurozone, at least for the time being. Part of that agreement involves Greece sequestering $55 billion in assets (€50 billion) to be sold or privatized for the purpose of repaying its creditors and recapitalizing its banks.
Critics are calling the plan an usurpation of Greek sovereignty, complete with a hashtag (#ThisIsaCoup) and memes featuring quotes falsely attributed to John Adams about slavery and debt. The plan is severe—in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau greets it as the beginning of the end for the eurozone—but some of its features are familiar. Detroiters know it well.
Back in 2013, Kevyn Orr, the bankruptcy lawyer appointed as Detroit’s emergency manager, announced plans to assess for sale the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the largest and most significant art collections in the country. The scheme would have seen major parts of the museum’s collection, those that belonged to the City of Detroit, sold or auctioned to repay the city’s debts.
In November 2014, a federal judge approved a “grand bargain” that resolved Detroit’s bankruptcy and saved the city’s art collection. In the end, the value of the collection as a whole prevailed over the sum of its parts; the museum, a number of private foundations and donors, and the state raised more than $800 million to secure the city’s outstanding pension debts and keep the collection in Detroit forever—or until the next time.
Had the threat against the Detroit Institute of Arts never materialized, the city might still be mired in bankruptcy proceedings today. Still, an outcome that preserved the museum collection was never certain. Creditors argued against it. Some of them said that they had found buyers willing to pay $2 billion for all of the art owned by the city, far more than the $800 million estimate procured by the city.
If Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is able to navigate this agreement toward passage between Scylla and Charybdis—German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the one hand and Syriza hardliners on the other—then this is the debate to which Greece can look forward. How will Greece scare up $55 billion?
“After six years of recession and counting, Greek liquid assets are scarce; presumably hard assets like beautiful Islands and national treasures are off limits,” notes The Wall Street Journal. Detroiters doubtfully share that sunny assessment. During Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, its most valuable cultural asset was very nearly put up on the auction block.
For all sorts of reasons, a comparison between Greece and Detroit falls short of useful. Much of Detroit’s debt was forgiven in the end, and, well, Detroit is not a member state of an international currency union. But the coming debate in Greece may nevertheless echo Detroit on the one point: How can Greece afford not to sell off cultural assets when people are suffering?
Greece isn’t going to lose Crete or the Acropolis to Germany. But there are other hard assets—antiquities whose value to Greek cities and world history is limitless—that may come up for discussion. If this deal is to proceed, Greek and Eurozone leaders must guarantee that these assets must be identified and negotiated in advance. They should take the form of new bank shares as the country recapitalizes (the prevailing option mentioned by French President François Hollande). Auctioning off Greek history would be a cultural coup.