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.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.