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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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.