When museum curators confuse price and value

By Felix Salmon
July 23, 2012
short piece in Forbes magazine, and a better, more detailed blog post, about one of the more bonkers tax fights out there: the one between the IRS, on the one hand, and the heirs of Ileana Sonnabend, on the other.

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Back in February, Janet Novack had a short piece in Forbes magazine, and a better, more detailed blog post, about one of the more bonkers tax fights out there: the one between the IRS, on the one hand, and the heirs of Ileana Sonnabend, on the other. Basically, Sonnabend owned a Robert Rauschenberg masterpiece, called Canyon, which cannot be sold — not even to a museum — because it includes a bald eagle. But the IRS wants her heirs to pay inheritance tax on it at a $65 million valuation, over and above the $471 million they’ve already paid in inheritance tax on other Sonnabend artworks they were bequeathed.

Novack couldn’t get a good explanation of where the $65 million number came from, although she did talk to the heirs’ lawyer, who said that the head of the IRS art panel, Joseph Bothwell, had said that even though it’s illegal for anybody to buy the work, “a recluse billionaire in China might want to buy it and hide it”. Which hypothetical Chinese billionaire was apparently enough for the IRS to ask for $29 million in taxes, plus a $12 million penalty for misstating the value of the work so grossly? Apparently what the estate should have done is mark the work not to where it can be sold legally (it can’t be sold legally), but rather to where it might conceivably be sold illegally, should there be Chinese billionaires interested in such things.

Today, the NYT’s Patricia Cohen picks up the story. She only really adds one thing, but it’s a very fascinating thing: she spoke to Stephanie Barron, who sits on the IRS’s Art Advisory Panel, and who was one of the group of people who jointly came up with the $65 million figure.

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.”

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.

I’m sure that Barron would push back at the idea, expressed at one time by Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s, that the most expensive art is the best art, and that there’s some kind of direct correlation between price and quality. But in a weak sense, she is clearly invested in the concept. While it’s common to find unlimited editions in museum design collections, they’re rarely found in museum art collections, precisely because they lack the artificial scarcity that confers financial value.

Over the course of the past 100 years or so, various artists, with varying degrees of success, have attempted to distance themselves from the art market and make work with no financial value. Rauschenberg himself, actually, was one of them: he was an early and important player in the world of performance art. But high financial valuations get attention, and museum curators are easily forced into a stance of worshiping those valuations, even if such a stance doesn’t at first come easily to them.

The way the art world works is that collectors collect art, and museums collect collectors: that’s how great museum collections are built up. Collectors are always rich, and while once upon a time that meant there was a lot of old money in the art-collecting world, those days are over now and the world’s biggest art collectors are nearly always new-money self-made men.

Now: suppose you’re a museum curator, and your job is to flatter some billionaire collector so that he will end up donating his collection to your institution. While you will surely talk about his great eye, and subtly disparage some hedge-fund whiz-kid without nearly the same degree of connoisseurship, there’s one thing you’ll never do, which is suggest that maybe there are much better collections out there which aren’t worth nearly as much money. For new-money art collectors, the art market is a constantly evolving judgment on what they have bought: if your art has gone up in value then that means you have a great eye and you’re very perspicacious; if your art has gone down in value, then that means you fell for some trendy fad, you fool. At its highest levels, art collecting is a highly competitive game — and mark-to-market valuations are the way that collectors keep track of who’s winning.

Ileana Sonnabend, who died with a billion-dollar art collection, surely ranks among the very best at playing that game. But at the same time she was the kind of person who would love Canyon, her Rauschenberg combine, all the more because it had zero financial value. And I’m quite sure that if she was on the Art Advisory Panel, and Canyon was owned by someone else, she would have taken great pleasure in assigning that work a value of $0.

For Stephanie Barron, a work’s financial value is defined by its artistic value. But for people like Robert Rauschenberg and Ileana Sonnabend, that was never the case. They both died wealthy, thanks to the art world. But I think they would have been genuinely horrified at Barron’s idea — the concept that if Canyon is worth nothing financially, then it must be worth nothing aesthetically. It’s a dangerous and invidious notion, and while it might fly with big-name LA collectors, it really has no place in any museum devoted to art rather than money.

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