How do you pay $41m in taxes on a painting which can't be sold?

The value of a painting is how much you can sell it for. But Robert Rauschenberg's "Canyon" is illegal to sell, leaving the Sonnabend estate in a pickle.

When modern art dealer Ileana Sonnabend died in 2007, her family had to sell a heck of a lot of paintings to pay their inheritance tax bill. They eventually valued the total estate at $876m, and had to say goodbye to works by Lichtenstein, Warhol and Twombly to come up with the $471m they owned.

But one of the most important paintings they owned was valued at $0, in a move which has led to the IRS (the Internal Revenue Service, the American tax office) taking them to court for to reclaim a further $41m from them. But this is not tax evasion gone wrong. The painting is quite literally priceless – or perhaps more accurately, valueless.

The work, called Canyon, is by American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg. It is a mixed-medium canvas, featuring "oil, housepaint, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow" – and a stuffed bald eagle:

Since trafficking in the bird, a formerly endangered species and national icon, is illegal whether it is dead or alive, the painting cannot be resold. In fact, Sonnabend had to obtain special dispensation to lend the work to museums, and even keep it at all, once federal agents spotted it in 1981.

Now, as any economist knows, there is no such thing as intrinsic value. An item is worth what it can be resold for. It's value certainly isn't what you paid for it, as anyone who bought a full set of Charles and Diana wedding memorabilia will attest to. And neither is it what it would be in a different, hypothetical, situation. If I own an autographed copy of Sticky Fingers​ which will be worth a lot "when (if?) Keith Richards dies", that's all very well, but it's not worth that now.

All of which is to say that if you own a painting which cannot legally be sold, and which can only even be retained through a rarely competent bureaucratic exemption, it is pretty fair to describe it as worth $0. (Although a more accurate valuation would be [sale price in an open market]x[probability of the restrictions being lifted], but if the latter is zero then the whole thing is as well). But the IRS, apparently, don't agree. They claimed to the estate's lawyer that:

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

Yesterday, the New York Times threw some light on how they actually reached their valuation:

That figure came from the agency's Art Advisory Panel, which is made up of experts and dealers and meets a few times a year to advise the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services unit. One of its members is Stephanie Barron, the senior curator of 20th-century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where "Canyon" was exhibited for two years. She said that the group evaluated "Canyon" solely on its artistic value, without reference to any accompanying restrictions or laws.

"The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered," Ms. Barron said, adding that the work’s value is defined by its artistic worth. "It’s a stunning work of art and we all just cringed at the idea of saying that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense."

Reuters' economics blogger Felix Salmon, who harbours part time fascination with the art world, doesn't think too highly of Barron for this:

The assumptions baked in to this are both jaw-dropping and entirely unsurprising at the same time. Barron is the senior curator of 20th-century art at Lacma, which puts her at the pinnacle of the non-profit art world, the place where art is supposedly valued just for its own sake and not because it’s worth lots of money. And yet, faced with a literally priceless work of art, Barron and her fellow panelists “just cringed” at ratifying precisely that concept. If a work has great artistic value, in Barron’s view, it must have great financial value as well. And, conversely, if a work has no financial value, then it cannot have artistic value.

Salmon is right that there is something peculiarly specific to the art world in this error, and that's what he focuses on for the rest of his very good piece. But it's also representative of a more widespread form of economic illiteracy. Take, for example, arguments around the introduction of a wealth tax.

The idea is that since a) inequalities in wealth are far greater than inequalities in income, and b) wealth is a better indicator of "richness" than income (people rarely have temporary spikes in wealth, for instance), then we ought to be collecting a tax on wealth (of, say, half a per cent of total wealth over £1m per year).

This is all good, but the problem comes when people start comparing liquid and illiquid assets. Much – most – of the wealth of the richest Britons is tied up in land and property. Unless Inland Revenue want to start collecting percentages of houses (and it's unclear what they would do if they seized, say, your front porch) then some people are going to have to start selling those homes, liquidating their assents.

When there's a glut of properties on sale, the value falls. If the value falls, the value of what can be taxed correspondingly falls. There is no such thing as the "true" value of someone's wealth which the Revenue can address, and if they do, they end up with cock-ups like the IRS's. Let that be a lesson to them.

A noble, majestic bald eagle, indirectly responsible for a $41m tax bill. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.