Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Rough Rider’s Eagle And The Estate Tax

What is the value of something that you cannot sell?

Someone walked face-first into this issue with the IRS.

We are talking about Ileana Sonnabend, an avid art collector and a very wealthy woman. She died in 2007, leaving an art collection that included works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Her estate was in the billion-dollar range, prompting her executors to sell pieces from the collection to pay federal and New York estate taxes. Those taxes approached $500 million.

There was a troublesome piece in the collection – Rauschenberg’s “Canyon.” Rauschenberg was a post – World War II American artist, and some of his work is described as “combine.” This means that the work includes different materials, such as Picasso mixing sand into his paints. The issue with “Canyon” is that it includes a stuffed bald eagle.

There are federal laws – the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act – that says that one cannot traffic in bald eagles, even a stuffed one.

Ms Sonnabend purchased “Canyon” in 1959, well after the 1940 law. In 1981 (yes, 22 years later) the Department of Fish and Wildlife contacted her to inform her that her ownership violated federal laws. She was able to obtain a permit to retain “Canyon” and loan it to museums, but she was forbidden to sell it. She got the permit because Rauschenberg – who made the piece – provided a written statement that the bald eagle had been killed and stuffed by one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, well before 1940.

The government decreed that it must be informed of “Canyon’s” location at all times. If the artwork left the country for an exhibition, it would have to apply for a visa.


Ms Sonnabend died. The executors had to put a value on “Canyon” for the estate tax return.

How do you value art for an estate? You get an appraisal. The estate got an appraisal on “Canyon” from Christie’s, the auction house. Their appraisal? It was worth zero – nada, zippo, subtract one from one. One cannot sell “Canyon” without going to jail, with greatly cuts into its marketability. Two other auction houses gave the same appraisal, so the estate filed an estate tax return showing a zero value for “Canyon.”

The IRS of course saw otherwise. In 2011 the IRS sent the estate a report proposing a value of $15 million for “Canyon.” The estate disagreed and refused to pay. The IRS – in an example of why people hate the IRS – issued a formal Notice of Deficiency upping the value to $65 million.

NOTE: It is not as though your local IRS revenue agent came up with this value. This is specialized work. The IRS has an Art Advisory Panel that helps with these cases. The most that a Rauschenberg has ever received at auction however is $14.6 million, which seriously calls their $65 million figure into question.

Just to put sand in the paint, the IRS levied a special “understatement” penalty of 40%.

So how did the bright bulbs on the Art Advisory Panel come up with the $65 million figure? One of them, Joseph Bothwell, said that there:

... could be a market for the work. For example, a reclusive billionaire in China might want to buy it and hide it.”

Huh? An illegal sale to a “reclusive billionaire in China” is not considered an accepted valuation technique.

Another bulb, Stephanie Barron, further explained that the Panel evaluated “Canyon” without reference to any restrictive laws.

“The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered,”’ she explained.

What? The most important factor in “Canyon’s” valuation and you did not consider it?

We all just cringed at the idea that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense,” she continued.   

Good grief.

Let’s have a brief review of the facts for Stephanie Barron. Ms Sonnabend owned an item. The government did not approve of her owning the item. This item could be anything. Let’s say – for example - that it is a Big Gulp in Times Square. The government does not want you to have it and wants to take it from you. The government could call in a drone, I suppose, but it instead shows restraint. The government cleverly takes the item from Ms Sonnabend without actually taking it from her possession. Is that a fair summary of what happened here?

OBSERVATION: One could argue that Ms Sonnabend suffered a theft loss.

The executors had a decision to make. If they didn’t pay the taxes, they would face IRS collections action. If they sold “Canyon” to raise the money to pay the taxes, they would go to prison for violating federal law.

How did this turn out? This month the IRS dropped its claim against the estate of Ileana Sonnabend over “Canyon.” The estate donated the work to the New York Museum of Modern Art. The estate agreed not to claim a tax deduction for the donation, as it previously argued that the work had no value.

This was not the IRS’ finest effort.

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