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French Government Backs Away from Taxing Art as Wealth

Andy Warhol, “Dollar Sign” (1981) (Image courtesy ukauctionnews.com)

A proposal for an amendment that would tax art worth over $65,175 ran into immediate controversy in France from museums and cultural officials. The government is now backing far away from the change in the tax code, which has the potential to discourage donations of art to institutions, the Sun Daily reports.

Proposed by a member of the Socialist Party, which is currently in power, the amendment would expand France’s wealth tax to cover artwork valued over 50,000 euros, or $65,175. The proposed policy received immediate pushback from the art community, who fear that the tax would drive art out of the country. An October 12 letter from cultural figures including leaders at the French National Library, Louvre, Versailles, and Pompidou outlined their concerns.

“There are reasons to fear that taxing artworks will dissuade their owners from loaning them, for fear they will be identified,” the letter reads. “The French public would be the first to suffer.”

The concern is that the tax will cause agents to investigate collectors homes in order to determine just what art they own and how to properly account for it. If a collector were to publicly donate a piece to a museum, it would also out them as the owner — and draw the attention of tax officials.

Following the backlash, the government is now stepping away from the proposal. “Artworks will not be included in the assets liable for wealth taxation. We don’t want to be in a country where tax agents are coming into homes to check on art,” Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told Europe 1 radio.

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon” (1959) (Image courtesy wikipedia.org)

Both the government’s decision and the tax proposal itself bring up questions of how art is treated as a commodity or asset, and what that means. A 2006 ruling in the United States interfered with the common art museum policy of partial gifts, a system in which a donor gives a “portion” of a work to the museum and promises to transfer the rest at a later date. The work stays on the collectors’ walls and appreciates in value over time, causing the tax deduction for each partial gift to increase as well. Tightened rules now state that the work must be handed over to the museum within 10 years of the first fractional gift, explains a useful New York Times article.

Elsewhere in Europe, works by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola were classified as industrial equipment — lights and projectors — rather than art, netting a value-added tax of 20 percent instead of five percent. Tax policy has caused issues for art in the United States as well. The children of dealer Ileana Sonnabend inherited from their mother Robert Rauschenberg’s “Canyon” (1959), appraised at a value of $65 million — netting taxes of $29.2 million. Unfortunately, the work can’t be sold to cover the taxes, because it includes a stuffed bald eagle, an illegal commodity in the US. Bet Rauschenberg wasn’t thinking of the tax code when he made that one.

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