Heirs of the Sonnabend estate inherited a piece of artwork — “Canyon” — made out of a bald eagle. The IRS says Canyon is worth $65 million, so the heirs owe $29.2 million dollars in taxes. The heirs say Canyon is worth $0, so they owe no taxes. The heirs base their valuation on the fact that the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act makes it illegal to sell Canyon — how can an unsellable good have a fair market value? The IRS appears to have based its appraisal on the sensibilities of its inner aesthete:
[The $65 million] 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.”
Not a felicitous soundbite for the IRS although elsewhere in the Times article it is suggested that their actual methodology was less egregious in that they tried to determine what price the work would command absent the legal restriction on its sale by looking at comparable works.
Still, the curator makes two howlers. First, she makes a moral mistake in letting her concern for a piece of art trump her concern for the human beings on whom her preferred valuation, which may well respect or preserve Canyon’s reputation, has an impact. (On the other hand, this criticism might prove too much. She is supposed to have a concern for what the law requires, not morality, requires. Still there is probably a better case to be made that humanists should scrupulously apply the law than that they should scrupulously follow the dictates of aesthetics.)
Second, she makes a conceptual mistake in assuming that if something has aesthetic value it must have monetary value. The values are not commensurable and, as Michael Sandel explains, it is inappropriate and a shame to think otherwise.