Artwork With Eagle Can't Be Sold; Can It Be Taxed?

The IRS wants to tax a work of art that, because it incorporates a stuffed bald eagle, cannot legally be sold.

Many Natives are familiar with the complexities surrounding possession of bald eagles -- it's bound to be a delicate situation when an animal is simultaneously sacred to tribes, a national symbol, and a formerly endangered species.

In the art world, a curious situation is unfolding regarding a late artist's work and the government's cut. "Canyon," by Robert Rauschenberg, is a mixed-media piece -- a combine -- that features a stuffed bald eagle. According to U.S. law, the presence of the bird makes it illegal to sell the work. Because it cannot be sold, appraisers have assigned "Canyon" a value of $0.

The IRS doesn't see it that way.

Art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who died in 2007, left the work to her children. Despite its zero-dollar value on the art market, the IRS has assessed it at $65 million, and wants owners Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem to pay $29.2 million in inheritance and federal taxes on it. The figure includes a special penalty because the IRS maintains that Sundell and Homem inaccurately stated the piece's value.

Adding a further wrinkle, the owners are already in violation of U.S. law. As Patricia Cohen explains in an article for the New York Times News Service, "the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle — alive or dead. Indeed, the only reason Sonnabend was able to hold on to 'Canyon,' [Sonnabend's lawyer Ralph E.] Lerner said, was due to an informal nod from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1981."

Inherited art collections are subject to particularly high tax rates. The collection left to Sonnabend's heirs was valued at around $1 billion; they have already sold off about $600 million of it to cover the taxes. "Canyon" is currently on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.