Donating Your Bald Eagles and Blue Jeans

Originally published in the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin

August 1, 2012

If you missed the July 22 issue of the New York Times, you missed a great article about estate tax the IRS is trying to levy on a piece of art that includes a genuine stuffed bald eagle.  The IRS has valued the piece of art at $65 million and wants the heirs of New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend to pay approximately $29.2 in estate tax.

The rub, however, is that it is illegal to sell the piece of art due to the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  The heirs and their appraiser are of course contending the value is $0 since they cannot legally sell it – how can it have value?  The IRS Art Advisory Panel reportedly called it a “stunning work of art” and is contending that it could be sold illegally on the black market and therefore has value.  It sounds to me like our government wants to have it both ways – you cannot sell it but, we are still going to tax you as if you could.  I think our tax policy should promote legal activities!

The end of the article mentions a possible charitable donation instead.  I suppose this could be an option for the heirs.  Unfortunately, the estate tax would not be eliminated, since the heirs would be the donors and not the decedent.  They would also have to be able to absorb a $65 million donation in a six year period against their income.  IRS law allows you to make a charitable contribution up to 50% of your income each year which can be carried over for up to five more years.  After that, you lose the rest permanently.  One strategy for large noncash gifts is to give a partial interest in the item each year and loan the rest to the charitable organization.  This way, you do not lose any of the valuable deductions.

It is important to remember that current IRS law requires an appraisal for donations over $5,000.  This would also include multiple gifts during the year of similar items that add up to over $5,000.  So if you are taking lots of trips with household items and blue jeans, just make sure it does not go over $5,000 during the year.  It is hard to get an appraisal on a pair of jeans you donated eight months ago.  Oh, and be sure to get your charitable gift receipt!

Regarding the bald eagle art – I sure am glad Mrs. Sonnabend did not leave it in her will to me –   sounds more like a white elephant from my perspective!

Prior articles are republished on my website at

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

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