A work by Robert Rauschenberg, currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is at the centre of a bizarre tax dispute. The work in question, Canyon, 1959 (right), shows a stuffed bald eagle with outspread wings fixed to a canvas.
It was bought from the Leo Castelli gallery by the late dealer Ileana Sonnabend. She was unaware that the bird is a protected species and that federal laws prohibit ownership or trade of the animal, alive or dead, but she later obtained special permits to display it.
When Sonnabend died in 2007, her heirs sold many works of art to pay the $471m tax bill on her estate. Canyon was valued at $0, since it cannot be sold, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) suggested that the canvas be valued at $15m. When the estate rejected this, the IRS raised its valuation to $65m, despite the fact that the highest price paid for a Rauschenberg at auction is $14.6m. Their reasoning? That a hypothetical Chinese billionaire could buy the work on the black market for as much as Warhol’s Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963, which sold for $71.7m at Christie’s New York in 2007.
Ralph Lerner, representing the Sonnabend Estate, has filed a petition with the US tax court in Washington, DC, to review the case. “If you sell [Canyon] to get the money to pay the tax, you go to jail,” he says. “This is the most egregious thing I’ve ever been involved in.” The IRS declined to comment.