What’s the Difference Between a Worthless Rauschenberg and One Worth $65 million? A Bald Eagle

Bullet Shih Feb, 2012 0
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While people are now accustomed to astronomical estimates for contemporary art coming out of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Forbes has a behind the scenes look at the high art appraisal game where the two parties differ in their estimates by $65 million!  The controversy at hand stems from the two radically divergent estimates given a work by Robert Rauschenberg by the estate of pioneering art dealer Ileana Sonnabend and the IRS.  Sonnebend who died in 2007 at age 92, left a trove of valuable works to her heirs.  After selling some of the crown jewels to pay taxes of a whopping $331 million to The US Government and $140 million to New York State, the IRS is looking for a little more flesh.  At issue is a work by Robert Rauschenberg who created multimedia paintings and sculptures that included everything from tires, to umbrellas, to taxidermied sheep.  Well in his work, Canyon executed in 1959 Rauschenberg included a stuffed bald eagle that under the Federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act passed in 1940 and amended in 1962 that

prohibits the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit(16 U.S.C. 668(a); 50 CFR 22).

Forbes writes that “After U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents spotted the verboten eagle in 1981, Sonnabend got a special permit to retain “Canyon” and lend it to museums. It’s now hanging at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

However the work cannot be sold so in its recent tax filing, the Sonnebend estate valued the work at $0.  The IRS came back with a tax bill valuing the work at $65 million based on its illicit or black market value.  The Sonnebend estate strongly disagrees.  Stay tuned.

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