Patricia Annino
Patricia Annino
Estate planning for valuable art
Lessons Brooke Astor could have used.

April 19, 2012
by Patricia M. Annino, J.D.

According to many who knew her, noted heiress and philanthropist Brooke Astor had a favorite painting, a Frederick Childe Hassam work known as “Flags, Fifth Avenue.” This American impressionist painting hung in a prominent place in her apartment since the early 1970s. Her son, Anthony Marshall, sold the painting while she was alive (and not competent) for $10 million and paid himself a $2 million commission. A short time after the sale, the dealer resold the painting for $20 million.

For many individuals and families, what to do and whom to trust with art is a thorny issue. It is important to consider the legacy of the work itself. Understanding the choices of who should receive it, who can afford to pay any estate taxes on it, who can afford to maintain it, who will use it, and who will appreciate it is an important part of the planning process. For many families these are not simple decisions. The right solution lies at the intersection of many complex and sometimes competing considerations.

Valuing art is an inexact science. No one can ever be sure what the market will bear. A first step to understanding the value is to get a qualified appraisal and valuation. The appraiser should be a member of either the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America, or the International Society of Appraisers.

It is important that the client understands the impact of taxation on the art in his or her estate (editor’s note: for more on this topic also see this Journal of Accountancy article.) For estate tax purposes, the gross estate of a U.S. citizen or resident at the time of his or her death, includes “the value of all property, real or personal, tangible or intangible, wherever situated” owned by the decedent at the time of his or her death (Sec. 2031(a)).  

The IRS has established an Art Advisory Panel whose task is to assist the Service in reviewing and evaluating appraisals of artwork in conjunction with federal income, gift, and estate tax returns. (IRS Internal Revenue Manual, §42(16)4). The panel consists of 25 art experts. If a tax return containing art with a claimed value of at least $20,000 is selected for audit, the case must be referred to the panel. If the artwork exceeds $50,000, Rev. Proc. 96-15 (modified by Announcement 2001-22) provides that a request can be made for an IRS-expedited review of the art valuation.

The client should understand that with valuable art, more may be included in his or her gross estate than the art itself. Art may have to be sold and substantial commissions paid on the sales. If that is the case, it may be desirable to mandate in estate planning documents that a sale be made by the executor so that the commissions are deductible as administrative expenses. The only other way that commissions paid on the sale of the art after death are deductible from the estate is if the sale is necessary to pay the estate taxes. In other words, if the art is sold by the estate (for any reason other than it was essential to pay estate taxes) and the estate planning documents do not mandate that the art be sold, then the expenses of the sale, which can be significant, will not be deductible. Therefore, in essence, the heirs will be paying an estate tax on the lost deduction.

That is one reason it is important to have a frank discussion with family, beneficiaries, and any intended charity before bequeathing art. If a piece of art has always been in the client’s family and the client believes that his or her children wish to receive it, it is wise to have a conversation with the children or heirs to see if they want the art or if they are more interested in converting it to cash. In reality, the children or heirs may be unable to pay the taxes and the cost of maintaining the art.

The possible lack of deduction from the taxable estate for expenses attributable to the sale of art underscores how critical it is to discuss the art’s legacy with heirs and with any charitable organization in the planning process. If the client wants to leave the art to a charitable organization and the organization is willing to accept it, then the art’s value is included in the taxable estate and the estate receives a charitable deduction for the gift. If the charitable organization does not accept it and there is no alternative provision and the art is sold and added to the residue or passes to individual heirs, the expenses attributable to the sale are not deductible. 

If, in the discussion about art, one family member does wish to receive it, then in the planning process you must carefully address how the estate taxes on that art are to be paid —who is to bear the burden of that tax? Is it the recipient or is it the estate’s remaining assets? Another option may be to consider what is known as a disclaimer—that is, the client leaves the art to the charitable organization or to a family member, and if they disclaim it (or choose not to take it) then the will mandates the sale of that asset to ensure that the estate will receive the requisite deduction.

If the client is considering gifting art to a charitable organization, find out now whether it is realistic for that organization to accept the gift and discuss any terms of the gift. Will there be any restrictions? Are those restrictions realistic? Are there endowment funds that will accompany the donation? It can be a burden to maintain and store art for a significant period of time. In my experience, donating funds to assist with maintenance and storage is prudent.

Charitable Remainder Trusts

Lifetime gifting options should be explored. There can be income tax benefits to making the gift of art—whether outright, in trust, or by fractional interest now. To assess the benefit, you must determine the income tax basis in the asset and quantify any capital gains tax that will be due on the sale. To avoid that gain, some clients consider transferring the art to a charitable remainder trust (CRT). A CRT (known as a split interest gift) is an irrevocable trust. The donor can gift the assets to the trust and retain the right to receive income for a predetermined period. When the income period ends, the CRT ends, and the remaining assets are distributed to the charitable organizations the donor has selected.

When the donor contributes an asset to the CRT, the donor will (in most cases) receive a current income tax deduction equal to the present value of the gift the charity will eventually receive when the CRT ends. Because CRTs are generally tax-exempt, appreciated assets can be gifted to a CRT and later sold without the donor or the trust owing capital gains tax. However, a CRT with unrelated business taxable income may be subject to a 100% excise tax on the unrelated business taxable income.

When the CRT is being established, the donor must decide the length of the income interest. In many cases, it is a lifetime payment stream (and/or for the lifetimes of one or more other persons the donor designates). As an alternative, the donor may direct that the income interest be paid for a specified period not to exceed 20 years. Once the specified income interest has concluded, the CRT terminates and the remaining assets are distributed to the charities that the donor has chosen.


The donor may determine how the income interest will be calculated with a CRT. There are two types of CRTs: the charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) and the charitable remainder unitrust (CRUT). The CRAT is designed so that the actual dollar amount distributed to the donor (and/or the other persons the donor designates) are fixed when the trust is created and funded. Generally the predetermined annuity amount will not change no matter how the trust assets fluctuate in value. A CRAT can be appealing to the donor who needs a specific amount of income and who is concerned about a change in income payments.

A CRUT is designed so that the amount distributed to the donor is recalculated each year based on a fixed percentage of the trust’s fair market value for that year. Unlike the CRAT, the CRUT is not a fixed annuity payment. The fixed percentage will not change; however, the amount that the donor receives can fluctuate. If the CRT performs well and the trust assets increase in value, so will the income interest payment, which is calculated as a fixed percentage of the increased trust value. However the reverse is also true, and if the trust decreases in value, the income interest will also be affected. A CRUT is appealing for the investment-minded donor who wants to benefit from increased income payments resulting from the long-term appreciation of the trust assets. There are various types of CRUTs, which should be explored in greater detail before the client makes a final decision.

A disadvantage of using a CRT for art is that because art is personal property, the income tax deduction may be limited significantly. In addition, when a charitable contribution consists of a future interest in tangible personal property, no deduction may be taken until all interests and rights to possession or enjoyment of the property have expired or are held by a person other than the donor (Sec. 170(a)(3)).

The tax benefits of transferring art to a CRT and later selling it include avoiding the capital gains tax on the sale of the asset and removing the underlying value of the asset from the donor’s taxable estate. Of course, the reason that the art is removed from the taxable estate is that it is no longer owned by the donor. For that reason, some donors couple the use of a CRT with what is known as an irrevocable life insurance trust. When used together, these tools replace the art’s value and keep that value out of the donor’s taxable estate.


The client may also choose to make a gift (lifetime or at death) of the art to family members in trust. If the client wishes the art or collection to stay with intended beneficiaries, he or she can establish an irrevocable trust and transfer the collection to it. That will protect the assets from the creditors of the beneficiaries and preclude its value from being taxed in the client’s estate. If doing so, it is advisable to add enough funds to that trust to insure and maintain the art. Choosing a trustee must be carefully considered as the trustee or trustees will have the continuing ability to manage the trust assets, including the art.

Fractional Interests

A gift of a fractional interest in art should also be considered. However, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) greatly limited the value of this strategy. Until passage of the PPA, a collector could donate a fractional interest in a work of art to a museum that qualifies as a charitable institution. Collectors did so for many reasons, one of which was that they could take a tax deduction for the value of the fractional interest. For example, if a collector donated a 50% interest in a painting to a museum, he or she could write off half the value as a charitable deduction. The painting would spend half the year in the donor’s possession and half the year in the museum’s. Unfortunately, this led Congress to be concerned that collectors may have been abusing the write-off by enjoying more than their rightful share of the art. For example, if a collector donated 50% of the art but kept it for more than six months a year, the public would be losing out on the painting’s availability during the excess period.

To address this perceived abuse, Congress changed the law to make donations of partial interests in artwork much less attractive for donors. Generally, before the PPA, the collector would bequeath the remainder of the fractional interest to the museum so the collector’s estate would take a charitable contribution deduction for the remaining current fair market value at the time of the collector’s death. But the PPA changed the law to require that the write-off be based on the art’s value at the time the original fractional interest was donated if the art appreciated in value, rather than on its value at the time of the collector’s death. If the art’s value has appreciated in that period, as it typically does, the law will reward the collector by reducing the amount his or her estate could take as a deduction for the donation and thus increasing the estate tax liability.

Consider the example of a painting worth $1 million when the collector first donated 50% to the museum. The collector bequeaths the remaining 50% of the painting when she dies, at which time it is worth $10 million. Under the old rule, the painting would pass to the museum and the estate would take a $5 million charitable contribution deduction. Under the new law, her estate may only deduct $500,000 and the estate would have to pay taxes on $4.5 million more than it would have under the old law. 

The PPA also introduced recapture rules (deductions turned back into taxable income) that further reduce the desirability of contributing a partial interest in art. If the collector fails to donate the balance of the art to the museum on or before the earlier of 10 years of the original gift or the collector’s death, the collector will be forced to recapture the deduction. In addition to paying income tax and interest on the recaptured amount, the collector must pay an additional 10% tax on it. This essentially requires the collector to donate or bequeath the remaining fractional interest or lose the tax benefit of the original gift.


If the client has valuable art, it is important that he or she assemble a team of advisers that understands how to deal with it. The team may include an attorney, financial adviser, tax specialist, and an art succession planner. It is wise to make sure that the team members know the extent and value of the art and how the client intends to dispose of it so that it can properly be taken into account when establishing a financial and estate plan.

The decisions and choices as to how to preserve the legacy of artwork should be thought through with care and involve a discussion with the client, the intended beneficiaries, the charitable organization, and the team of advisers.

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Patricia M. Annino, J.D., chairs the Estate Planning Practice Group at Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

* The AICPA’s PFP Section provides information, tools, advocacy and guidance to CPAs who specialize in providing tax, retirement, estate, risk management and investment advice to individuals and their closely held entities. PFP Section members, including PFS credential holders will benefit from additional resources on this topic in Forefield Advisor on the AICPA’s PFP website at aicpa.org/pfp. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. For CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter, apply to become a PFS Credential holder.