As an art collector, a good rule of thumb is to buy what you like, not what you expect to appreciate in value at the fastest rate. First and foremost, it’s a collection and something to be appreciated and enjoyed. Secondarily, it’s an investment. And when it comes to investments, there’s always one tricky thing to figure out: inheritance. An increasingly important part of estate planning is figuring out what will happen to your art when you are no longer around to appreciate it.
One problem many heirs run into when they inherit pieces or an entire collection is unwanted tax consequences, especially if the person isn’t related to the collector or simply isn’t as personally invested in the art as the owner once was. While the owner may feel a strong responsibility towards their art, it’s not necessarily going to resonate with their children or loved ones as much as it once did them. Family’s run into unintended challenges when resources have to be allocated towards something the collector is no longer around to cherish.
Luckily, there are specialist advisers well equipped to handle such issues. They have a deep understanding of tax law in estate planning and philanthropy as they apply to each country and it’s unique tax codes.
This vocation requires a specific background and niche expertise not just because of it’s complexity, but because it’s difficult to put a price on art. The value of art actually changes depending on your use for it. If you’re going to keep it, give it away, or lend it to an institution, you’re going to have different goals and priorities in mind.
For example, if you want to pass your Cezanne on to your children, it’s actually better for it to be valued as low as possible. Transfers to heirs are taxed at very high rates in most countries if the estate or gift amount is of a large enough value. You can appraise a piece of art for less for gifting purposes because it is illiquid, and there may not have been comparable sales in recent years. Because a precise value for the work is hard to gauge, tax authorities are likely to accept a low estimate, but it must come from an independent appraiser. Keep in mind, rules on valuation and tax treatment vary from country to country.
Lack of liquidity can sometimes help and sometimes hurt in estate planning. When you sell, the transaction occurs in a public market and is recorded, creating a potential taxable event for the new owners.
One complication comes when an illiquid asset generates a liquid liability. Say a collector’s heirs inherit $15 million of artwork and the same amount of liquid assets, as well as a $15 million estate tax bill. They can either sell the liquid assets to pay the bill which will leave them with all their wealth tied up in art, or they can sell the art.
Financial advisers often come up with complicated techniques for transferring ownership of art without transferring the art itself. For example, collectors can sell art to heirs and then lease it back to them, but the tax break, depends on a jurisdiction’s legal framework.
Another complication comes from a feature of many tax codes that state that property can be subject to estate tax wherever it is located when the owner dies. So, if you normally reside in Switzerland and decide to bring our Warhol to Quebec to hang in your second home, but die during your layover in Chicago, the United States will assess estate tax on the value of the Warhol. Even worse, because you are not an American citizen or resident, only the first $60,000 of the piece’s value escapes taxes, instead of the $5.43 million that is exempt for American citizens.
Another area of concern for art collectors is that of tax-efficient philanthropy. When giving art to an institution, you want to appraise in the opposite direction from which you would gift. In this case, it is best to get as high an estimate of valuation as possible in order to maximize the tax write-off. There is also a case where a collector may maintain ownership of an artwork for a given period, while lending their work to an institution. Under American law, a collector can lend work to an institution and take a prorated charitable deduction, but the collector must give the work away entirely within 10 years or at death (whichever comes first.)
Each country has its own set of rules and regulations towards estates, taxation, inheritance, etc, so it’s important to have an advisor skilled in every aspect of these laws and codes who can walk you through this complicated process. Without the proper planning, you can never be sure with whom or where your art collection may end up.