2007 saw the demise of Ileana Sonnabend, a legendary purveyor of art created after 1945. Among the famous works in her considerable estate was Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon, a canonical, influential mid-century work well known from survey texts and studies of formal and thematic innovation in contemporary art. The work is neither a painting nor a sculpture, though it includes attributes of both. The artist called it a “combine”, and it brings together a variety of media, art supplies, scraps, miscellaneous material, and things.
One of these things is a stuffed bald eagle.
Sonnabend’s heirs tasked three appraisers, including one from Christie’s, to put a value on the work. Since the bald eagle, dead or alive, is under federal protection, it would be a felony to sell the work and a felony to buy it. For this reason, the appraisers reasoned that its fair market value is $0. Price, after all, is not inherent; it is a function of market behavior. In this case, that behavior is prohibited by law.
It is perhaps no surprise that the IRS, tasked with celebrating the deceased by scrupulously taxing her legacy, disagrees with that appraisal. Stephanie Barron of LACMA, an expert adviser to the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services, parses the economic data differently:
The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered…. 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. (NYTimes)
Au contraire, Ms. Barron, it cannot make any cents! Nonetheless, the IRS appraised it at $65M. (This is after having assessed a tax of $471M on the estate, for which Sonnabend’s heirs had to sell off much of the collection in the largest private art sale ever.)
The federal government forbids the owner of Canyon to sell it, and forbids anyone to buy it. But the tax for inheriting it? Plus a penalty for daring to declare its worthless? $29,200,000.