by Emily Lanza*
Estate tax, death tax or inheritance tax? Pick one and pay up to 40% with first $5.4 mill exempt.
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?
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.
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.
- Estate of Eva Franzen Kollsman v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 2017 T.C.M. (RIA) 2017-040 (2017).
- 26 U.S.C. § 2001.
- 26 U.S.C. § 2031.
- Treas. Reg. § 20.2031-1(b).
- 26 U.S.C. §§ 2053, 2054, 2056.
- Rev. Proc. 96-15, 1996-3 I.R.B. 41, § 8.04.
- 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.
- 26 U.S.C. § 6695A.
- 26 U.S.C. § 6662(g).
- Sotheby’s, Bio of George Wachter, ttp://www.sothebys.com/en/specialists/george-wachter/bio.html.
- Estate of James J. Mitchell v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 101 T.C.M. 1435, at *14 (2011).
- 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).
- Mary Anderson et al., Art Advisory Panel Helps Courts Sculpt Estate Valuations, 42 Est. Plan. 20, 11 (2015).
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely of the author and do not express the views and opinions of the U.S. Copyright Office.