Politically, and perhaps as a negotiating tactic, the question of the collection’s fate is being cast as a choice between measurable benefits, like city pensions, which could be cut to satisfy creditors, and the much harder-to-measure benefits of cultural assets.

“It’s hard to go to a pensioner on a fixed income and say ‘We’re going to cut 20 percent of your income or 30 percent or whatever the number is, but art is eternal,’ ” Mr. Nowling said. “For people, that’s a hard distinction. I think it’s a distinction that some of the patrons of the D.I.A. have a hard time understanding. We’re talking about real people here with real decisions that have real impact on their lives.”

He added, of the art works: “It doesn’t mean we’re proposing to sell them. But we need to know how much they’re worth and we need to know what value are they bringing back to the city.”

Bankruptcy lawyers say the issue of the value of such cultural assets goes beyond philosophical or moral arguments. For a bankruptcy judge, the questions could include whether the sale of a city’s artworks would have long-term economic implications — depressing tourism, harming real-estate values and the value of other cultural institutions, for example — in a way that sets a city up for financial failure again down the road.