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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rauschenberg's "Canyon" - What can death and taxes tell us about art?

In a win for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the heirs of New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend have settled their dispute with the Internal Revenue Service over estate taxes on Robert Rauschenberg's 1959 work titled "Canyon."  The New York Times reports today that, as part of the settlement, the Sonnabend heirs will donate "Canyon" to the MoMA, which had been wooing the Sonnabend heirs, along with the Metropolitan Museum, in hopes of adding the 20th-century showpiece to its collection. 

The NY Times first reported in July that the IRS had valued "Canyon" at $65 million and assessed $29.2 million in taxes on the estate of Ileana Sonnabend, who died in 2007.  The problem?  The "combine" work---characteristic of Rauschenberg's assimilation of painting, sculpture, photography, and other materials in a single piece---would have a value of exactly zero on the market because it incorporates a stuffed bald eagle, which it would be illegal to sell under federal bird protection laws.  Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 it is a felony to take, possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, transport, export or import, at any time or any manner, any bald eagle, alive or dead, or any part thereof.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 contains similar prohibitions.  The upshot of these two laws is that the Sonnabend heirs could not have legally sold "Canyon," even if they had needed the money in order to pay the estate taxes on the artwork.  In fact, Sonnabend was only able to retain possession of the work because of an apparent agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stipulating that the work had to be displayed in a public museum.

Although the tax case has settled, the fundamental questions it raises about the value of art are worth pondering.  This case forces us to ask wherein lies the value of art.  Is the worth we put on a work of art entirely dependent on the sum it will bring in the open market, or is there some inherent value that will persist regardless of the market?  And how do we measure that value?

A member of the Art Advisory Panel, a group of experts and dealers who advise the IRS on art appraisals, told the NY Times back in July that the Panel had evaluated "Canyon" "solely on its artistic value" in reaching the $65 million estimate.  She told the NY Times, "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."

Inherent in the statement that, because of its "artistic worth" alone, a work cannot be given a monetary value of zero is the notion that artistic merit is measured in monetary terms.  Yet, the use of monetary terms seems to suggest some monetary value that could be achieved in an exchange for the work, i.e. on a market. For "Canyon," there is no legal market for a highly meritorious artistic achievement, i.e. no amount for which Rauschenberg's masterpiece could be legally exchanged, so what a conundrum!

It seems to escape our contemporary conceptions of art that a work could have a monetary value of zero and yet still be valued or appreciated in some other terms for its artistic achievement or significance.  The arguments over the "value" of "Canyon" are striking in light of recent clamor in the art world about our market-driven approach to art appreciation.  (See, for example, Dave Hickey's recent resignation).  We have a hard time conceiving of art that loses its usefulness as an investment and yet is still sufficiently appreciated.  Can we value art without using numbers?  There may be other ways of assigning monetary value to "Canyon" even if it can't be sold on a legal market in the U.S., but it's something to think about.

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