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Athwart

Funeral Audit

by James Lileks

Wandered through a few European museums last month. You find yourself looking at the 435th Annunciation, this time by Giovanni Battisti Garbonzo DiLavatrini, and the eyes start to glaze. If there’s a modern room, it wakes you up, like chewing ice with a mouthful of cavities; then you get to the most recent works, which are conceptual pieces: a sheet of copier paper with nothing on it, framed, titled “Out of Toner.” At that point you’re ready for Annunciation #426.

There’s more art back on the cruise ship, ranging from competent to kitschy-kitschy-koo. It’s for sale! One night at dinner I was seated next to a fellow who’d run a fine-art gallery, and when the subject of shipboard art came up, he assumed the expression of Shelley Duvall in The Shining when Jack Nicholson comes hacking through the bathroom door. But people buy it.

What’s it all worth? The old standard: whatever someone’s willing to pay. The new standard: whatever the government says it’s worth. A curious case was reported in the New York Times in July: A family inherited a sculpture by Robert Rauschenberg that includes a stuffed bald eagle. Because you cannot sell anything that contains bald eagle, they are forbidden to auction it off, and the heirs do not want to shuffle off to the big house in leg irons for selling a 70-year-old bird. People like them are the lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy. Shivs in the shower. They’d never make it out.

So far they have escaped prosecution because the bird was shot by one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders — that sanctifies it, apparently — and it was plugged before the 1940 law that protected the bald eagle. It’s probably good that they can’t sell it, lest people start abusing the law to create Edgy, Outside Art that really shocks the bourgeoisie, like a snail darter in a jar of urine.

The family says it’s not worth anything, because they can’t sell it. The IRS says — and I’m paraphrasing — HAHAHAHA Seriously, pay up. From the New York Times:

Last fall, the agency sent the family an unsigned draft report that it was valuing “Canyon” at $15 million. After Mr. Lerner replied that the children were refusing to pay, the I.R.S. then sent a formal Notice of Deficiency in October saying it had increased the valuation to $65 million.

Meaning: $29.5 million in taxes. If they lose the case, an additional $11.7 million in penalties for having the audacity to demur. Over $41 million in taxes on a stuffed bird that cannot be sold.

Fine, the president might say: They didn’t build that stunning collage of found objects whose careful arrangement reveals the artist’s sensibility; someone else did. All the government is asking is for people who inherit a billion dollars’ worth of art to pay their fair share, so we don’t go back to the Failed Policies of the Past, where the Bush administration deprived the Treasury of revenue with their falsified evaluations. Remember when Colin Powell went before the U.N. and said that Peter Max silkscreen was probably worth $12,000, at best? Infamy. We need that money so we can invest in things like roads and bridges that bring people to museums so they can pause by a collage that contains a dead bird and linger for a second before heading off to the “Art of Star Wars” exhibit. It has original drawings from the first movie! Darth Vader’s helmet is totally different.

The family has already coughed up $471 million in estate taxes, paid for by the sale of $600 million worth of art. This leaves them with over $100 million, so they have no right to complain to anyone about anything. That’s how liberals see it, anyway. The estate tax evens things out, averts the concentration of wealth, and provides opportunity through the magic power of government. The moment that $471 million check cleared, someone unemployed in Oklahoma got a phone call telling him the plant was opening back up again and the kids wouldn’t have another winter without shoes.

 “Gosh, mister — thanks!”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the IRS art evaluators who correctly discerned the value of that Jeff Koons rabbit sculpture. They’re the real heroes.”

It makes you realize there’s a lot of wealth out there the government could recapture, if only it started sticking heirs with tax bills for heirlooms. Set up a Department of Inflated Assets and Forfeiture. Grandma leaves you her dusty collection of Hummel figurines and Franklin Mint commemorative plates? The DIAF says they’re worth $648,945. You owe $221,842. This would work for baseball cards, cigar bands pasted in binders, a shoebox of trading stamps Mom never cashed in but couldn’t toss because they were worth something, somehow. Everything has value to someone, and if you can’t trust the government to set its value for the purposes of extracting the maximum tax, whom can you trust?

Estate taxes are popular because most people don’t pay them. This would change if the government sent around an agent to pry the rings off the body in the coffin during the funeral, which is why they don’t: Tempting from a revenue standpoint, but bad optics. So why not tax the heirs on the value of rings Grandma wore when she was planted? Sure, you probably won’t sell them, because you’d have to disinter her. But you could.

Good enough! Here’s the bill.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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