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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.