Should Heirs Pay Taxes on Assets They Can’t Sell?

Throughout history artists and their artwork have often been on the leading edge of controversy. In a recent brou-ha-ha between the heirs of the New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service the controversy is over nothing less than the value of art—although perhaps not “value of art” in the philosophical way it often gets discussed in universities. Instead, this controversy is over the much more practical questions of art and taxation.

According to this article in the New York Times, the IRS is trying to demand that the heirs pay $29.2 million in taxes on a work of art which most appraisers have valued at $0. “The object under discussion is ‘Canyon,’ a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg… Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, the heirs would be committing a felony if they ever tried to sell it. So their appraisers have valued the work at zero.”

Not only are the heirs unable to ever sell the piece of work, they also cannot donate the piece to a museum and claim a charitable deduction. There are very few legitimate purposes for the piece of art under current law. Currently the piece is on a long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; something for which the family, as far as we know, receives no monetary profit.

The IRS, however, “has appraised ‘Canyon’ at $65 million and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes;” an act which, as the article notes, “puts the heirs in a bind: If they don’t pay, they would be guilty of violating federal tax laws, but if they try to sell ‘Canyon’ to zero-out their bill, they could go to jail for violating eagle protection laws.”

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