In the Eye of the Beholder: Appraisals of Art for Estate Tax Liability

 

By Emily Lanza*

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In February 2017, the U.S. Tax Court ruled that the estate of a deceased New York woman, Eva Franzen Kollsman, undervalued $2.4 million worth of art on the estate tax return. The assets at issue before the Tax Court were two Old Master paintings by Pieter and Jan Brueghel held by the decedent at her death. The IRS claimed before the Tax Court that the Kollsman estate underreported the values of the two Old Master paintings resulting in a $781,488 federal estate tax deficiency.

 

In reaching this decision, the Tax Court not only rejected but also criticized the appraisals made for the estate of the two Old Masters by George Wachter, Vice President of Sotheby’s North America and South America. The Tax Court dismissed Estate’s declaration and the valuations made by Wachter, finding that his valuations were “unreliable and unpersuasive” due to his direct conflict of interest and misconstrued analysis of the Old Master paintings. 

The opinion of the Tax Court in the Estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue demonstrates the importance of having a justifiable and objective appraisal when determining the tax liability of an estate. The valuation of art is not an exact science and may change depending on the “eye of the beholder.” However, in order to determine the precise tax liability of an estate, appraisers and estate executors must adhere to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) guidelines, professional codes of ethics, and the legal requirements within the Tax Code to ensure some level of objectivity and consistency. What were the shortcomings of the appraisal conducted for the Kollsman estate and what are the lessons to be learned from this case?

Estate Tax

The federal estate tax is a tax levied against the estate of a decedent, which must be paid by the estate upon the transfer of the property. The top tax rate is statutorily set at 40%. A series of adjustments and modifications of a tax base known as the “gross estate” determines federal estate tax liability. The gross estate includes the value of all property, including real or personal property such as artwork, that the decedent owned on the date of his or her death. The value of the property included in the decedent’s gross estate is the “fair market  value” on the date of the decedent’s death. According to estate tax regulations, the “fair market value” of the property is the price at which the estate property would hypothetically change hands between a willing buyer and willing seller. In such a sale, the buyer and seller would not be compelled to buy or sell the property as such a compulsion would disproportionately raise or lower the price. Additionally, both parties would be expected to have reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts, such as the condition or history of the relevant property. The impact of subsequent events after the death of death on the fair market value depends on the particular facts of the case and whether the parties would be expected to have knowledge of the relevant facts surrounding the subsequent event. The fair market value tends to reflect the hypothetical sale price in a market in which the item is most commonly sold to the public, such as the auction market for art assets.

Next, certain allowable deductions reduce the gross estate to the taxable estate. These allowable deductions include estate administration expenses, certain debts and losses, charitable bequests, and state death taxes. Then, the tax rates are applied to the taxable estate after the total of all lifetime taxable gifts made by the decedent is added to the taxable estate. Any available credits, such as the “unified credit,” are subsequently taken to obtain the actual estate tax liability, the amount of tax paid by the estate. For estates belonging to decedents who died in 2017, they must pay tax on estates valued greater than $5.49 million, the basic exclusion amount under the unified credit for 2017 (the unified credit in 2016 was $5.45 million). The IRS adjusts the unified credit amount every year to account for inflation. The Trump administration has recently proposed to eliminate the estate tax.

Estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue

As explained above, the fair market value of property held by the estate is an important factor in determining the tax liability of the estate. This was the primary issue before the Tax Court in this case. Upon her death in 2005, the decedent, Eva Franzen Kollsman, owned two 17th-century Old Master paintings at issue in this case: Village Kermesse, Dance Around the Maypole (“Maypole”) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Orpheus Charming the Animals (“Orpheus”) by Jan Brueghel the Elder or the Younger. Pieter Brueghel’s work was later sold by Sotheby’s for the hammer price of $2,100,000.

In September 2005, a month following the decedent’s death, the estate’s expert, George Wachter, Vice President of Sotheby’s North America and South America, valued the paintings at $500,000 for the Maypole and $100,000 for Orpheus. In reaching these values, Wachter considered the composition and subject matter of the paintings but focused much of his analysis, according to his testimony before the Tax Court, on the extreme yellow discoloration and the dirt and grime on the paintings that accumulated during years of the decedent’s smoking. Wachter’s valuation was included in the estate’s 2005 tax return. After the valuation, the paintings were cleaned by a fine art services firm, Julius Lowry Frame and Restoring Company, at the request of the estate.

 

In 2009, Maypole sold at Sotheby’s for the hammer price of $2,100,000. The executor of the estate, Jeffrey Hyland, retained Orpheus. While the estate tax return listed the fair market value of Maypole and Orpheus at $500,000 and $100,000 respectively, the IRS asserted in a notice of deficiency that the estate had underreported the value of the two paintings and the actual fair market value of Maypole was $2,100,00 and of Orpheus was $500,000, resulting in a $781,488 tax deficiency. The estate petitioned the Tax Court for a redetermination of the paintings’ fair market values.

 

Before the Tax Court about ten years after the initial evaluation, the estate and the IRS presented the testimony of their respective experts and their valuations of the two paintings at issue. Paul Cardile, Ph.D., an art historian with twenty-five years of experience as a fine art appraiser, served as the expert for the IRS before the Tax Court. After analyzing the testimonies of the two experts, the court rejected Wachter’s valuation, and found the value of the Maypole at $1,995,000 and of Orpheus at $375,000. The estate was found liable for the resulting tax deficiency, the amount of which to be determined later by the IRS.  

Analysis of the Estate’s Appraisal

While the Tax Court routinely weighs in on the valuation of paintings for the purpose of determining estate tax liability, the court in the case of Estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue not only agreed with the analysis of the IRS’s expert but strongly objected to and criticized Wachter’s testimony referring to his valuations as unreliable and unpersuasive. Why did the estate’s appraiser incur such criticism by the Tax Court?

1. Lack of Objectivity

First, the Tax Court found that Wachter held a significant conflict of interest “that could cause a reasonable person to question his objectivity” by adjusting the valuation for his own benefit. Determining the appropriate estate tax liability greatly depends on the objectivity of an appraiser, especially in the context of assessing the fair market value of art. Such calculations demand “insider-knowledge” of the art market, and objectivity must accompany this skill and expertise in order to maintain the integrity of the estate tax framework.

IRS Revenue Procedure 96-15 outlines various conflicts of interest that an appraiser must avoid when crafting his appraisal for tax liability purposes. These prohibitions include the appraiser not inheriting property from the estate as a beneficiary or not being any part of the estate. The appraiser also cannot have been employed by the decedent, because such a relationship may color the motivations of either party. The IRS also requires the appraiser to “hold himself or herself out to the public as an appraiser,” as potentially demonstrated through membership in professional appraisal organizations. These organizations, such as the American Society of Appraisers (ASA) and the Appraisers Association of America (AAA), require their members to follow a code of ethics in order to avoid such conflicts of interest as identified by the IRS. For example, the AAA requires that its members must appraise property objectively, “independent of outside influences and without any other motive or purpose than stated in said appraisal.” The AAA offers a list of certified appraisers, who possess an extensive level of expertise, education, and experience.

In addition to the IRS procedures and ethical “carrots,” appraisers may face potential “sticks” to ensure objective and accurate work. Implemented by the Pension Protection Act of 2006, section 6695A of the Tax Code imposes a penalty on the appraiser who prepared an appraisal used for an estate tax return and the appraisal results in a substantial valuation understatement. An understatement has occurred if the reported value of the property is 65% or less of the amount determined to be the correct value. The penalty imposed is the lesser of 10% of the underpayment (or $1,000 if greater than the 10%) or 125% of the gross income received from the preparation of the appraisal. For example, if an appraisal resulted in an underpayment of $50,000 and the appraiser received $2,000 for the appraisal, the penalty imposed under section 6695A would be $2,500 as the lesser value of 10% of the $50,000 underpayment ($5,000) and 125% of the gross income of $2,000 ($2,500) for the appraisal.

The court held that Wachter’s relationship and correspondence with the estate’s executor, Hyland, during the valuation process impaired his objectivity and, correspondingly, his credibility. While Wachter was determining the fair market value estimates for the estate paintings, Wachter and Hyland apparently corresponded about the fate of the paintings. During this correspondence, Wachter, as a Vice President of Sotheby’s, solicited Hyland for the exclusive rights for Sotheby’s to auction the Maypole and Orpheus, if Hyland ever chose to sell the paintings. The Tax Court did not reveal whether or how much Wachter received for this appraisal or whether he differentiated between his two roles as an appraiser or potential seller of the paintings in this correspondence.  Under Sotheby’s terms of service according to the Tax Court, an auction sale would entitle Sotheby’s to a 20% commission on the first $200,000 of the hammer price. Presumably, the employee who would bring in property would also collect a certain fraction of the hammer price as an incentive for bringing business. It appears, according to the Tax Court, that Wachter “had a direct financial incentive to curry favor with Mr. Hyland by providing fair market value statements that benefited his interests as the estate’s residual beneficiary” and that Wachter thus “lowballed” the estimates of the paintings to reduce the estate’s tax liability. The Tax Court further found that the simultaneous timing of the valuations and Wachter’s pitch for exclusive auction rights seemed to imply that the latter influenced the former, demonstrating Wachter’s lack of objectivity.

Wachter’s actions suggest if not directly implicate the various conflicts of interest outlined in the IRS policy about appraisal procedures. While Wachter was not a direct beneficiary inheriting the paintings from the estate, his employer certainly benefited from the sale of the Maypole and the explicit or inexplicit arrangement between Wachter and Hyland. Thus, Wachter violated professional ethics requirements for objectivity with this “quid pro quo” arrangement. However, according to the Tax Court opinion and Wachter’s biography on the Sotheby’s website, he is not a member of any professional organizations that demand some sort of accountability. If Wachter’s valuation had occurred after 2006 (and not the year before), Wachter would likely have been penalized under section 6695A for the gross understatement of the painting’s value. Given the hammer price that was more than four times the value he ascribed to Maypole, Wachter valued that work well under the threshold set in the Tax Code at a quarter of the value determined by the Tax Court. While Wachter seemed to avoid any legal repercussions for his lack of objectivity, at least according to the Tax Court ruling, the estate was settled with the consequences and the adjusted estate tax liability. In order to avoid such scenarios, estates should investigate the objectivity of their appraisers and ensure some type of oversight or accountability when hiring them for this important task.

2. Exaggerating the Poor Condition of the Paintings

Second, the Tax Court objected to Wachter’s emphasis on the poor condition of the paintings when forming his valuations. In his report, Wachter described the condition of both paintings as covered in dirt and grime with extreme yellow discoloration, due to the decedent being a heavy smoker. According to Wachter, one could not be certain of the inherent value of the paintings in this condition, and he concluded that the value of the paintings should reflect the high level of risk involved in cleaning. However, the Tax Court found that such a risk was exaggerated, highlighting testimony of the conservator that the risks involved with cleaning were low. Moreover, the Tax Court pointed out that the cleaning process only took two to three hours, indicating that such a procedure was “comparatively easy and problem free.” Contrary to Wachter’s report, Cardile, the IRS expert, did not adjust for the dirty condition of the paintings as “surface dirt do[es] not affect the intrinsic value of an Old Master painting.”

Upon first consideration, accounting for the state of the painting, as Wachter did when calculating the value, appears to be a logical step in a fair market value analysis. According to IRS policies, an appraisal must include a description of the art item that states the physical condition of the work in addition to the subject, medium, size, visible marks, and provenance. In the past, the Tax Court has acknowledged the physical condition of the work and has adjusted the value accordingly. For example, in the Estate of James J. Mitchell v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the Tax Court placed less weight on the testimony of the IRS experts because they did not adjust their valuation of an early twentieth-century watercolor by American artist Charles Marion Russell to account for “its inferior status and for its poor paper quality and back boarding.”

While an appraiser may and should consider the physical condition of a work, Wachter’s assessment of Maypole and Orpheus was inappropriate due to the emphasis on the level of dirt – a condition that could be and was easily remedied. The cleaning and framing of Maypole and Orpheus, which occurred after Wachter’s valuations, cost the estate $4,500 and $4,350 respectively. Unlike the Russell watercolor which was painted with inherently volatile and poor materials, the dirt covering the Maypole and Orpheus was not intrinsic to the painting itself. Wachter’s emphasis on the dirt of the paintings ignores the guiding principle when determining fair market value that the hypothetical buyer and seller have “reasonable knowledge of relevant facts” affecting the potential sale. “Reasonable knowledge” includes facts acquired during the background investigation and negotiations for the sale, and in this particular case would likely involve consulting a conservator about the risks of cleaning a dirty painting. Wachter’s deep deduction in the value of the paintings to account for their dirtiness was misplaced and too substantial, for information about the actual cleaning process, which only took a few hours, was “readily discoverable.” The Tax Court did acknowledge that cleaning carries some risk but calculated only a 5% discount for the Maypole and a 25% discount for Orpheus to account for bowing, a more critical aspect of its condition. But Wachter’s inappropriate consideration of surface dirt demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic approach towards the analysis of a painting and fully accounting for all the facts that a likely buyer or seller would recognize when approaching a sale.

3. Need to Use Comparable Sales

Perhaps the most significant criticism of Wachter’s valuation by the Tax Court is the absence of comparable sales to support his analysis. “Comparables”  (or “comps”) are the recent selling prices of similar pieces of art that are used to help determine the fair market value of a piece of art, with the assumption that it will sell at a similar price of other similar works. The Tax Court referred to this omission as “remarkable” and with the absence of any comparables, “Wachter’s report lacks any objective support for his valuation figures.” According to the Tax Court, comparables of paintings by Pieter Brueghel sold between $1,040,000 and $3,331,000, and paintings by Jan Brueghel sold between $400,000 and $700,000.

The use of comparable sales provides the basic foundation for the valuation of art by offering an objective analysis of the likely market value. Cardile, the expert for the IRS, identified several comparable paintings for both the Maypole and Orpheus. Comparing the subject matter, medium, size, and the provenance (record of ownership) of similar paintings that sold prior to the date of the Kollsman estate was being appraised, Cardile could calculate the likely market price of the Maypole and Orpheus more accurately and confidently. Generally, courts, in their analysis of appraiser testimony, are likely to weigh more favorably comps that were sold closer in time to the date of valuation and are more similar in subject matter to the estate’s property than comparables that are too dissimilar to the painting at issue to provide an objective benchmark. For example, the court in Estate of Murphy v. United States found the testimony of the IRS expert to be particularly problematic and thus gave his testimony less weight than the testimony of other experts. The valuation of the IRS expert was based upon sales too remote in time, from six to nineteen years before the valuation date, while the testimony of the other experts relied upon sales only a few months before the valuation date.

When evaluating suitable comparables, courts focus on the details, such as the date of the sale and similarity in composition to the painting at issue. When an expert such as Wachter completely ignores such evidence, the court has very little information to rely upon when assessing the credibility and accuracy of a valuation and corresponding testimony. There is no reason to believe that Wachter did not know who painted Maypole and Orpheus and even those less familiar with leading artists are likely to recognize the surname Brueghel to find suitable comparables. The practice of using comparable sales in this context is so essential and commonplace that it is unclear why Wachter’s valuation was missing such a critical component. The lesson from this omission is that the strength and credibility of future appraisals depends upon finding pertinent and appropriate comps so that a court may properly analyze the proposed valuation.

Conclusion

The evasive “fair market value” is the cornerstone of determining estate tax liability. Calculating the value of a unique piece of property based upon the price of a hypothetical market transaction is an inherently difficult task. Appraisers rely upon past sales of comparable art pieces in order to predict the future activity of this market. They consider the whole piece of art, including the subject matter, condition, and provenance, from the point of view of a hypothetical buyer and seller for the fair market value analysis. Because such precise analysis requires great skill, knowledge, and years of specialized experience that members of the courts generally do not possess, the courts and accompanying legal system depend upon the objectivity of the appraisers. If such professionalism is absent, the courts and the IRS cannot administer the tax law fairly. Unfortunately for the estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman, its appraiser did not follow these principles, and the estate had to pay penalties for the omissions of its appraiser.

Selected Sources:

  1. Estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 2017 T.C.M. (RIA) 2017-040 (2017).
  2. 26 U.S.C. § 2001.
  3. 26 U.S.C. § 2031.
  4. Treas. Reg. § 20.2031-1(b).
  5. 26 U.S.C. §§ 2053, 2054, 2056.
  6. Rev. Proc. 96-15, 1996-3 I.R.B. 41, § 8.04.
  7. Appraisers Association of America, Code of Ethics, https://www.appraisersassociation.org/index.cfm;jsessionid=15426E3A1A9207384153A96906B788A6.cfusion?fuseaction=document.viewDocument&documentid=720&documentFormatId=1353&CFID=3969729&CFTOKEN=a08c8da32b839881-B1374B0E-1C23-C8EB-805AFDB50E7E6B2D.
  8. 26 U.S.C. § 6695A.
  9. 26 U.S.C. § 6662(g).
  10. Sotheby’s, Bio of George Wachter, ttp://www.sothebys.com/en/specialists/george-wachter/bio.html.
  11. Estate of James J. Mitchell v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 101 T.C.M. 1435, at *14 (2011).
  12. U.S. v. Simmons, 346 F.2d 213, 217-18 (5th Cir. 1965)(finding that facts revealed during a background investigation of the decedent’s records constituted “reasonable knowledge” for purposes of determining the fair market value of property).
  13. Mary Anderson et al., Art Advisory Panel Helps Courts Sculpt Estate Valuations, 42 Est. Plan. 20, 11 (2015).
  14. Estate of Charles H. Murphy, Jr. v. U.S., No. 07-CV-1013, 2009 WL 3366099, at *18 (W.D. Ark. Oct. 2, 2009).

*About the Author: Emily Lanza is currently Counsel for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Copyright Office and had worked previously as a legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service, advising Congress on intellectual property and estate tax issues. She received her J.D. in 2013 from the Georgetown University Law Center. Before her law career, she studied archaeology and worked for museums in various capacities. She can be reached at emilyla8@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely of the author and do not express the views and opinions of the U.S. Copyright Office.

WYWH: Immigration Law and the Arts – NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IN

 

By Katherine Jennings

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 11.41.59 AM

Photo credit: Center for Art Law.

On March 9, 2017, the Center for Art Law held an Art Law Mixer addressing the timely and provocative topic of immigration issues confronted by immigrant artists with the recent issuance of EO 13769, among other anti-immigrant measures. The 45th President commenced his presidency with a barrage of Executive Orders (EOs) including EO 13769*, which was signed by Trump on January 27, 2017, and restricted travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries and by all refugees. This EO has had far-reaching and devastating effects on immigrants including immigrant artists. It has wreaked havoc and confusion at the borders. Antagonizing foreign dignitaries, it has quickly been met with outrage and resistance by artist activists, art organizations, and lawyers.

 

The Georges Bergès Gallery, a stylish, SoHo gallery with an international focus, was the apt and welcoming site of the two-hour event, a first Center for Art Law (the “Center”) program to address immigration issues. It was composed of a wine and cheese reception and presentation by the founders of Lehach Filippa, an immigration law firm intended to serve creative professionals, followed by a Q&A. The discussion was moderated by Irina Tarsis, founder of the Center. Attendees included lawyers, artists and law students. After a brief warm up period during which attendees were encouraged “to talk to someone you didn’t come with,” Georges Bergès, the founder of the eponymous contemporary art gallery, spoke briefly to welcome all and to talk about the global perspective of his gallery. Bergès said his goal is to find authentic artists who are working in their own cultural context.

On to the substantive portion of the evening, Tarsis introduced Alejandro Filippa, Esq. and Michael Lehach, Esq, founding partners of Lehach Filippa. Lehach and Filippa spoke about the O-1 visa, commonly referred to as the “artist visa”, and the process of applying for work permits as a foreign artist. The current political climate and the effects of the anti-immigrant executive orders from President Donald Trump was also a topic of discussion. Filippa speculated that if the current precedent of an excessive number of executive orders is any indication, we will likely see more pushback and restrictions to immigration applications and processes in the future.

In order to qualify for an O-1 visa, or artist visa, an applicant must demonstrate “extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue to work in the area of extraordinary ability.” Extraordinary ability in the field of arts means “distinction.” The Immigration Act of 1990 (Pub.L. 101-649, 104 Stat. 4978) was a national reform of immigration that, among other things, excluded artists and entertainers (as well as athletes and nurses) from qualifying for H-1B visas. Two new categories, O and P, were introduced for extraordinarily skilled foreigners in the arts and sciences. The 1990 legislation was created in response to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (Pub.L.), aka the McCarran-Walter Act, which was meant “to exclude certain immigrants from immigrating to America, post-World War II and in the early Cold War.

Clearly, both Lehach and Filippa enjoy their law practice and are competent, dedicated professionals. Their passion was evident as they spoke about the process of creating a solid application in order to achieve success in obtaining an artist visa. Advocating for their clients is predicated upon a solid application with supporting documentation. Involved in facilitating artist visas and residence applications, they represent foreign creative professionals who want to work in the US and creative organizations seeking foreign talent to work in their US office. Their clients are from diverse industries such as the performing arts, music, fashion, film, photography, design, fine art, journalism and more. These “extraordinary aliens” have included tattoo artists, dancers, and rappers. The client may seek Temporary Work Visas and /or Permanent Residence based on Extraordinary Ability.

Lehach and Filippa outlined the proof needed to establish a valid application for an artist visa. In addition to a detailed resume, the client should include all relevant documents regarding their awards, notable clients, publications and press, and work history. An applicant must provide at least eight references by professionals who can attest to the extraordinary abilities of the applicant. Noting that an applicant’s file can be huge, they also spoke about how they have to be from important and respected sources. Lehach noted that it would not do a client any good if he were to provide his private residence as a gallery that would show the applicant artist’s work. Rather, the gallery must be a well-known and established entity.

Another crucial component of the application is an itinerary of the events and activities in the beneficiary’s field of extraordinary ability. You must have a plan of what you will be doing, with whom and when, and it has to be concrete. This constitutes the Sponsorship aspect of the application. For example, the applicant must provide an established list of galleries who will show his or her work and a concomitant timeline. An Employer, an Agency, or an Agent is an acceptable sponsor. Finally, it is helpful for the applicant to have a portfolio as a physical manifestation of the accomplishments detailed in his or her resume.

Lehach and Filippa also spoke about the case of an application for an Artist Visa being rejected. They said it is much better to refile, than appeal, because the immigration agents can be fickle. Noting that it can often be difficult to decide what constitutes extraordinary ability, they said it is crucial to initially establish a solid case. Their law firm also deals with other immigration issues such as obtaining permanent residency, obtaining a green card, and asylum issues, and extension of artist visas.

The presentation was followed by a lively question and answer session. Both presenters showed obvious delight in their chosen field and were quick to address each question thoughtfully. One interesting tidbit revealed during the Q&A was that under the right circumstances there is even a provision for bringing an artist’s muse into the country on a visa. As for the immigration ban that instigated the theme of the evening, “a judge sitting on an Island in the Pacific” ruled it unenforceable.

*Note that on February 3, 2017, EO 13769 was given a temporary restraining order in a decision from the Ninth Circuit of the Court of Appeals. EO 13769 was revoked as of 3/16/17.

About the Author: Katherine Jennings is a lawyer and contemporary realist oil painter living in New Jersey. She has a B.A. in History from Duke University and a J.D. from Fordham University School of Law where she was an Associate Editor of the Fordham International Law Journal. Having practiced intellectual property and immigration law, she is also certified as an Art Law Mediator with VLA. She was recently accepted into the Copyist Program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her work may be viewed at www.katherinejenningsfineart.com.

 

WWYH: “Eyes on the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs” and Changing Policies

By Heather DeSerio*

On February 28, 2017, the New York State Bar Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law’s Fine Art’s Committee (EASL) hosted a brown bag lunch with Kristin Sakoda, Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel of the New York City (NYC or the “City”) Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA or Department). Sakoda is a veteran at the DCLA and runs an all-female department of three attorneys. She presented to a room full of lawyers working in the arts about the DCLA’s mission the types of legal issues involved in the agency’s work, and the DCLA’s involvement in shaping the cultural policy of the City. Attendees of the event also learned about how the City administers and manages public art initiatives from the perspective of a lawyer, and the policies that shape the City’s arts-related initiatives.

Background

The creation of the Department of Cultural Affairs has an interesting story about how it became the DCLA that exists today. In 1869, a group of citizens proposed that NYC should build a museum for natural history, which led to the construction of the American Museum of Natural History. Afterwards, a number of museums began construction around the city. Next, followed the formation of an 11-member panel Art Commission in 1898, that oversaw the proposal and installation of permanent works of art, architecture, and landscape architecture on NYC owned property. Around 1934, then-mayor of NYC Fiorello La Guardia, appointed a Municipal Art Committee to advise the City on ways to stimulate New York’s cultural life during the hardships of the Great Depression. The Committee used funds from the Works Progress Administration, the emergency Relief Bureau, and other foundations. It wasn’t until 1968 that the DCLA was created within NYC’s Parks Department. In 1976, under the direction of Mayor Abraham D. Beame, the DCLA became its own department that existed separately from the Department of Parks and Recreation with its own commissioner. This was done so that the needs of the growing DCLA could be met and the Parks Department could better focus on providing for the Parks and Recreation initiatives.  

About the DCLA

The DCLA serves an important function in a city known for being one of the biggest cultural centers in the world. The annual budget on the Mayor’s Office website indicates that the DCLA is the nation’s largest municipal funder of the arts in the United States. During their 2017 fiscal year, their expense budget was $84.81 billion and a capital budget of $14.0 billion through 2018. (For more information about different breakdowns and allocations of funding for New York City see the annual budget by clicking here.)

The Department plays a pivotal role in encouraging and supporting public funding of art, artist residencies, and provides many grants to artists and institutions throughout the metropolitan area. This support contributes to New York’s diverse and robust cultural scene.

The DCLA has three primary funding divisions that provide support for the arts community. First there is the the Program Services Unit, which administers funds to groups that provide cultural experiences for NYC’s residents and visitors. The second funding division is the Cultural Institutions Unit that provides operational support (in the form of unrestricted operating grants and the payment of all energy bills – heat, light and power) for 33 major cultural institutions occupying City-owned buildings or land, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The third division is the Capital Projects Unit (CPU), which provides capital in the form of grants for the design, construction, and equipment for those institutions and other cultural groups in City-owned and non-City-owned facilities. The Capital Projects are funded from the NYC’s Capital budget.

Among their other projects, the DCLA administers New York City’s program Percent for Art, which makes art accessible to the public and visible throughout NYC by commissioning and acquiring art for display in public spaces. As the title of the program implies, 1 percent of the City’s capital is made available for the commission of or acquisition of a public piece of art. There are currently over 400 acquired works displayed around NYC. Click here to view a map of all the public artwork on display that was funded through the Percent for Art Program.  A couple familiar works include the Frederick Douglass Memorial, located in Central Park West and the Triumph of the Human Spirit monument in Foley Square (near the court houses downtown). On February 15, 2017, NYC’s Office of the Mayor released a statement that Mayor de Blasio recently signed off on an increase to the Percent for Art program in the amount of 1% of the first $50 million as indicated in the bill, Intro. 1296-A.

Another key program administered by the DCLA is Materials for the Arts (MFTA). It was  created in 1978. MFTA provides nonprofit and educational organizations with free supplies to support and grow art programs citywide. The program is headquartered in a large warehouse owned by DCLA in Long Island City, New York. MFTA collects reusable materials from a host of donors, and distributes them free of charge to qualifying non-profit arts organizations, City agencies, public schools, and social, health and community service organizations that have arts programs in New York City. Individual artists qualify only if they are financially sponsored by a non-profit organization. Once an entity qualifies, they can request a shopping appointment for materials at the MFTA warehouse or can obtain items through their online listing database. The MFTA also provides training for teachers on how to creatively reuse the donated materials and integrate them into art projects. The MFTA has distributed free supplies to more than 1,900 member organizations and public schools and collected more than 1.2 million pounds of high quality reusable goods valued at $5.8 million from over 1,685 donors, according to the DCLA’s website.

The Department has many new initiatives that focus on increasing support for art institutions and artists. For instance, one of these new initiatives involves integrating art into city services involves placing individual artist to partner with DCAS in the Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) program. There is also the IDNYC Cultural Partnerships where the City offers NYC residents a free ID card that has the benefit of providing free one year membership to venues throughout the five boroughs such as the Museum of Modern Art, the New York City Ballet, the Bronx Zoo, and many more. These programs provide the public with increased  access to art programs to foster art education and more opportunities for residents to become members of cultural institutions to gain free access to museums, zoos, aquariums, and much more.  

DCLA’s Legal Counsel

The DCLA’s legal department provides guidance and support for most of the programs that the DCLA offers. More cultural institutions, museums, government, for profit and nonprofit should take note of the number of attorneys working for the DCLA. There are at least three attorneys that work together to provide support for all of DCLA’s initiatives in conjunction with the NYC Law Department. DCLA’s General Counsel handles a wide variety of issues for the City such as employment law, contracts, artist rights, leases, licensing, and legislative drafting.

The legal department at the DCLA also focuses on the City’s interest in artist rights under the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), 17 U.S.C. § 106A. This provision is relevant when the DCLA commissions or agrees to purchase a work of art to be displayed publicly. Artists who are commissioned by the DCLA or who sell their artwork to the City should be aware of their “VARA rights.” This is because the artist’s moral rights in the artwork are impacted when the agreement is a work for hire agreement or the City includes provisions that indicate that the City has right to control the work or remove it for safety reasons. See, this previous article VARA, Back to the Rescue of Public Art in NYC written by Irina Tarsis of the Center for Art Law, for more information about VARA rights and provide an example of issues that an artist can face with public art agreements.

The DCLA attorneys also work with city council and provide guidance in drafting legislation for the Percent for Art Legislation program by making policy decisions for the department. The lawyers at the DCLA also carefully watch issues at the national level because decisions at the federal level can impact their Department. This is especially true as the new administration is taking office and making significant changes.

Federal Funding and the DCLA

Funding for exhibits is not the only problem that cultural institutions will face. On March 16, 2017, the United State’s Office of Management and Budget, released the proposed Budget for 2018 making it clear that the current administration wants to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (“NEA”). The state and local Department of Cultural Affairs across the country face an important question about how they will be impacted by the proposed budget cuts to the NEA. Sakoda pointed to the fact that the federal budget trickles down to the state and then to the city. If the funding received by the State is reduced by the Federal Government it will in turn have a dramatic effect on the amount of available funds that the City receives from the State. Accordingly, the reduced budget the City will receive from the State will be reflected in the City’s reduced funding for grants to artists and cultural institutions. This will result in a decline in funding for exhibitions, art development, art organizations, and other art initiatives. There will also be a reduction in the acquisition of public art, and cultural institutions will be impacted significantly at the local level if the federal budget is reduced.

One of the most concerning issues with the federal cutbacks for the NEA is the federal insurance program that the NEA provides for exhibitions. There is a common requirement in loan agreements that museums must take out insurance for artwork displayed in an exhibit. Insurance is commonly provided by the NEA’s federal insurance program. This federal insurance program plays a huge role in providing insurance for artwork and without it many exhibits would never happen in the United States because major museums across the country would be unable to get insurance on their own for the amount required to put on large exhibits. The New York Observer’s article The Masterpiece Trade: Meet the U.S. Agency That Makes Museum Blockbusters Possible noted the role the federal insurance program plays in bringing major exhibits to museums by pointing out that the Museum of Modern Art displayed a statement that indicating that the recent “‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ exhibit from October 12, 2014–February 10, 2015, was ‘supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.’”

For more information about the role that the NEA plays in the arts in the United States please read the article, The Legislative History of NEA and NEH, written by Emily Lanza.

Conclusion

Not only with the programs the DCLA manages trickle down to artists, institutions, and organizations, even public schools will feel the effects of this blunder because they would not receive materials from the Material for Arts Program. Artists will feel the shift in the federal government’s agenda in a dramatic way and be left with little financial assistance to spur creativity and care for artwork outside of the patronage system. It will have a stifling effect on creativity, and a failure to fund the NEA will reduce the number of important exhibitions, development of important non-profit organizations, leasing and acquisition of equipment, and reusable materials for public schools that help provide the public with motivation to develop and come up with new works to be displayed and interacted with.

Without the support and expertise of the DCLA, there is a big question that plagues the future of many publicly funded organizations, institutions, and art projects. The programs that the DCLA department funds are all susceptible to be reduced in proportion to the amount of funding received from the federal government. The policies and legislative initiatives could be altered as well. At this time, there is concern about whether the proposed budget or reduction in NEA funding will be approved by Congress. There are also discussions regarding an approved budget cut’s impact among members of the legal community that work within the creative organizations and individuals.

Helpful Sources

*About the Author: Heather DeSerio (NYLS, JD Class 2017) is a Spring 2017 Legal Intern with the Center for Art Law. In her studies, she is concentrating in Intellectual Property Law. Prior to law school, she worked as a fine artist and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from Ringling College of Art and Design. She can be reached at heather.deserio@law.nyls.edu.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely upon the information in this article and should consult a licensed attorney.

Cuba’s in the Air: The Legal Challenges to Loaning Art from Cuba due to Judgments under the State Sponsored Terrorism Exception

By Mandy Estinville*

Cuba and the United States are closer now than they have been for 50 years. In 2015, the United States officially removed Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Moreover, the Obama Administration amended the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations to allow for greater freedom in travel and remittances, and to permit U.S. telecommunications, media, construction, and agricultural companies to establish a physical presence in Cuba. Most recently, the United States loosened certain sanctions on Cuba, including lifting the $100 limit on bringing Cuban rum and cigars into the United States. Although future of the normalization process between the two countries is uncertain under the Trump administration, a continuation of diplomatic relations with Cuba will promote cultural exchanges, such as selling and loaning art to museums and galleries. In fact, The Art Newspaper reports that the “market for Cuban art is booming; 20th-century Modernists such as Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, and Rene Portocarrero are particularly popular.” 

Despite improved relations between the two countries, there remain many unresolved issues that may affect Cuba’s willingness to export art to the U.S. In particular, Cuba owes about $7 billion dollars in property claims to American citizens and corporations whose property in Cuba was seized by the Cuban government during the Fidel Castro administration. In addition to those claims, Cuba is responsible for default judgments totaling over $3 billion dollars for purported acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. Until paid, judgment holders of terrorist-related claims may attempt to seize any Cuban governmental owned art that enters the U.S. for a museum exhibition.

The State Sponsor Terrorism Exception

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (“FSIA”) provides that  foreign states are immune from the jurisdiction of state and federal courts. However, Congress has created certain terrorism-related exceptions to the general immunity that foreign sovereigns enjoy within the U.S. Namely, the State Sponsor Terrorism exception (“SST”) allows courts to exercise jurisdiction over claims against foreign state sponsors of terrorism that cause personal injury or death to the U.S. citizens.

Cuba was originally placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 for reportedly sponsoring communist groups in other countries. After Congress enacted the State Sponsor Terrorism exception to the FSIA, many plaintiffs filed human rights lawsuits against Cuba. Consequently, in many cases, courts found Cuba liable for acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. These cases were ex parte proceedings, which resulted in default judgments since Cuba failed to appear. In Alejandre v. Republic of Cuba, the Florida Southern District court found jurisdiction under the SST exception and held Cuba liable for the Cuban Air Force’s shoot-down of two U.S. registered civilian planes in 1996, killing four people, three of them U.S. citizens. Each plaintiff, in that case, was awarded between $16 and $17.5 million dollars in compensatory damages as well as $137.7 million dollars in punitive damages.  The Florida Circuit court  also found jurisdiction under SST exception in Hausler v. Republic of Cuba and held Cuba liable for the execution of Bobby Fuller in 1960. Mr. Fuller’s family was awarded $65 million dollars in economic losses, $35 million dollars for non-economic compensatory damages, and—notably—$300 million in punitive damages. Lastly, the court in Villoldo v. Ruz found jurisdiction under the SST exception and held Cuba liable for its role in the imprisonment and torture of Gustavo Villoldo following the Cuban Revolution. As a result, the court awarded the plaintiffs a $2.79 billion dollars judgment against the Republic of Cuba and other Cuban parties.

Enforcing Judgments Against Cuba

Although the plaintiffs in Villoldo, Hausler and other cases won sizable judgments against Cuba, the Cuban government failed to make any payments. Challenges to obtaining payment for these judgments remain since Cuba has no attachable property in the United States. Consequently, the plaintiff’s only current viable option is to go after the estimated $243.2 million dollars worth of assets previously blocked by the Kennedy administration following the Cuban Missile Crisis. These assets were originally blocked, or “frozen,” in order to prevent Cuba from using the United States banking system to transfer money to other Latin countries for use by local communist groups.

Some plaintiffs have been successful in attaching their judgment to Cuban blocked assets under section 201(A) of Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. This Act allows for the liquidation of blocked or frozen assets of a foreign state designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, or its agency or instrumentality, to satisfy a judgment against the foreign state for a claim based on SST. In fact, plaintiffs in Weininger v. Castro collected over $90 million dollars on their terrorist-related judgments against Cuba by liquidating frozen bank accounts owned by Cuban telecommunications companies. Because Cuban assets in the United States  are sparse, plaintiffs are forced to be creative in enforcing their judgments. For instance, a plaintiff unsuccessfully sought to have a $63.6 million judgment paid out of BNP’s forfeiture of funds for its criminal conduct of processing and transferring billions of U.S. dollars to and from entities in Sudan, Iran, and Cuba.

Judgments against Cuba under the State Sponsored Terrorism Act may attach to Art loaned from Cuba

A potential unintended consequence of the normalization between Cuba and the U.S. is that it may provide plaintiffs with another viable option to collect on their judgments against Cuba. Section 1610 (a) of FSIA provides limited exceptions to immunity by allowing claimants to attach their judgments to foreign state’s property in the U.S. under certain circumstances.21 Under § 1610 (a) (7), claimants with judgments related to the State Sponsor Terrorism exception can attach that judgment to any Cuban governmental property. This attachment can occur regardless of whether the property is or was involved with the claim so long as the property is in the U.S. in connection to a commercial activity.

Typically, museums can apply to protect internationally loaned artworks from seizure under the Immunity from Seizure Act (“IFSA”). This protection is not automatic, once a museum submits its application to the State Department, the President or his designee must determine whether the object is of cultural significance and whether the temporary exhibition is in the national interest.  While IFSA may protect Cuban loaned art from attachment for judgments relating to SST claims, it is unclear if the State Department will grant this immunity for Cuban loaned art under the Trump administration since the future of the normalization process between the U.S. and Cuba is uncertain. Without an approved IFSA application, it is likely that the risk of possible attachment for judgments obtained against Cuba will curtail the chances of Cuba exporting its art to the U.S. for temporary exhibits. Relatedly, Cuba recently failed to loan art to the Bronx Museum for the “Wild Noise” exhibit despite a ruling from the Obama administration granting the pieces protection from seizure. Instead, the museum exhibited pieces from private collectors and galleries. Cuba’s reluctance to loan art to museums in the U.S. may be attributed to the diplomatic uncertainties under the Trump administration.

In December 2016, Congress enacted the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act ( the “Immunity Clarification Act””), which amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act in response to the Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam finding that temporary art loans for exhibits are deemed a commercial activity. This new law clarifies that the act of exporting art that has been granted immunity from seizure under IFSA for a temporary exhibit in the U.S. is not considered a commercial activity and is, therefore, immune from U.S litigation. Despite the potential for this new amendment to increase international art exchanges, Cuba may still be vulnerable to expropriation claims if it exports art that was confiscated during Fidel Castro regime. One of the exceptions carved out in the Immunity Clarification Act disallows immunity for works “taken in connection with the acts of a foreign government as part of a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation or misappropriation of works from members of a targeted and vulnerable group.” Cuba may fall under that exception since it had systematically seized all Cuban property including property belonging to American individuals and corporations without compensation after the 1959 revolution led by Castro.

The ongoing disputes and outstanding claims and judgments between Cuba and the United States are not going to disappear. It has been reported that in addition to the  claims the U.S. has against Cuba, Cuba asserts that the United States also owes Cuba billions in reparations and for the economic damage caused by the embargo as well as damages resulting from events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Due to the precarious nature of Cuba’s relationship with the U.S, it is imperative that Cuba resolves its outstanding judgments in the U.S. before it risks loaning any of its art to a U.S museum.

From the Editors:

Cuba CollageOn March 22, 2017, Cardozo Law School’s Art Law Society and the Fashion, Arts, Media, and Entertainment Law Center (FAME) hosted a symposium, about Cuban art and the art market called “Not Their Art! Demystifying the Cuban Plunder and Nationalization of Art, Hoping for Restitution, and Predicting the Future of the Embargo and Its Sanctions.” Abigail McEwen, a specialist in Cuban and Porto Rican art of the twenty-century, moderated the event. There were three speakers at the event: Monica Dugot, the current International Director of Restitution at Christie’s, Carmen Melian, the former Director and Senior Specialist in Latin American Art at Sotheby’s New York for 15 years, and Carl Micarelli, a New York lawyer that advises clients on compliance with with regulations from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Presentations at Cardozo centered around how artworks that were confiscated (or nationalized) by the Cuban government following the Cuban Revolution and the complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States have caused long-term problems still affecting the art market. For example, Dugot spoke about how Christie’s strives to make restitution of artwork for families that have had artwork confiscated an easy process for any valid claim that arises and is supported by sufficient documentation. Melian provided many examples of how artwork has come to market outside Cuba, including one involving a Cuban priest who sold artworks that were left with the church in an effort to provide funds for the parish, other examples centered around how many artist such as Wilfredo Lam who fled Cuba left many works behind, and how many forgeries permeate the art market as artworks are being copied from photographs with Cuban art in the background. Questions of authenticity and title have presented significant problems for provenance research and have complicated even the basic determination of whether artworks were privately or state-owned property. Micarelli informed the audience about the various U.S. laws and embargos  imposed vis-a-vis Cuba that affect the art market; he warned the audience about the uncertainty of U.S. policy in relation to Cuba.

The market for Cuban artwork is said to be growing, but the sentiment of the panel was to be cautious when a buyer is going to purchase artwork that is from Cuba because of so much uncertainty surrounds ownership of the artwork that comes from Cuba.

Select Sources and Suggested Reading

  1. Julie Hirshchfield Davis, U.S. Removes Cuba From State-Sponsored Terrorism List, New York Times (May 29, 2015) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/30/us/us-removes-cuba-from-state-terrorism-list.html.
  2. Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_ne.w.pdf
  3. Julie Hirshchfield Davis, Obama, Cementing New Ties With Cuba, Lifts Limits on Cigars and Rum, New York Times (October 14, 2016)  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/15/world/americas/obama-cuba-trade-embargo.html?_r=0.
  4. David D’Arcy, Cuba refuses to return seized art despite thaw in relations with US, The Art Newspaper (Feb. 23, 2015) http://old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Cuba-refuses-to-return-seized-art-despite-thaw-in-relations-with-US/36940
  5. Mari-Claudia Jimenez, “RESTITUTING LOOTED CUBAN ART,” ASCA Cuba in Transition (2009), available at http://www.ascecuba.org/c/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/v19-jimenez.pdf
  6. 28 U.S.C. § 1605
  7. 28 U.S.C. § 1605A
  8. CRS Report for Congress: Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL32251.pdf
  9. 996 F. Supp. 1239 (S.D. Fla. 1997).
  10. Hausler v. Republic of Cuba, No. 02-12475, 2007 WL 6870681 (Fla. Cir. Ct.
    Jan. 19, 2007).
  11. Villoldo v. Ruz, No. 08-14505 CA-25, 2009 WL 1832603, at *2 (Fla. Cir. Ct. May
    29, 2009).
  12. Can Creditors enforce Terrorism Judgment against Cuba? https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/creditors.pdf
  13. Terrorist Assets Report for Calendar Year 2015 https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/tar2015.pdf
  14. Cuban Assets in U.S Frozen by Treasury, Chicago Tribune (July 9, 1963) http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1963/07/09/page/1/article/cuban-assets-in-u-s-frozen-by-treasury
  15. Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-297, § 201, 116 Stat. 2322.
  16. 462 F. Supp.2d 457, 98-503 (S.D.N.Y. 2006)
  17. United States v. BNP Paribas S.A., 14 Cr. 460 (LGS) (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 30, 2015)
  18. 28 U.S.C. § 1610(a)
  19. Immunity from Seizure Act: 22 U.S.C § 2459 https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/USCODE-2011-title22/html/USCODE-2011-title22-chap33-sec2459.htm
  20. Randy Kennedy, Bronx Museum Won’t Get Loan of Art From Cuba, New York Times (Jan. 23, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/arts/design/bronx-museum-of-the-arts-cuba-declines-to-send-art.html
  21. Malewicz v. City of Amsterdam, 517 F. Supp. 2d 322; H.R. 6477
  22. Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act: H.R. 6477 https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/6477
  23.  Frances Robles, Cuba Seizures Now Present Opportunities, New York Times (Dec. 21, 2014) https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/world/cuba-seizures-now-present-opportunities.html.
  24. Senior State Department Official on Cuba Claims Discussions https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/07/260666.htm

About the Author: Mandy Estinville is an attorney based in New York, NY. She can be reached at mandyestinville@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Any views or opinions made in the linked article are the authors alone. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.