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IRS deal means museum home for 'Canyon,' no tax bill for former owners

The modern art showpiece "Canyon" has a new permanent home at New York City's Museum of Modern Art thanks to a $41 million settlement with the Internal Revenue Service.

NYC_MoMA_Entrance_Wikimedia Commons Entrance of Museum of Modern Art via Wikimedia Commons

The work by Robert Rauschenberg is a combine, a mixed-media collage featuring photographs, cardboard, wood, fabric and a stuffed bald eagle on canvas. The ornithological symbol of the United States is why Uncle Sam got involved.

The 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle, whether alive or dead.

The artwork's original owner, Ileana Sonnabend, got an informal OK from the feds to keep "Canyon." But Sonnabend's heirs said those same laws prohibiting resale of the piece made it worthless for tax purposes.

The IRS disagreed. An appraisal for the tax agency valued "Canyon" at $65 million. That led to an IRS demand of $29.2 million in taxes from the Sonnabend estate.

But that amount, along with almost $12 million in tax penalties, was waived by the IRS in exchange for the family donating "Canyon" to a museum -- MoMA beat out its NYC rival Metropolitan Museum Art -- where it would be publicly exhibited. The Sonnabend heirs also had to agree not to claim a tax deduction for the donation.

I'm a birder and the hubby and I enjoy wandering through museums, but I am not a fan of modern art in general or, based on photographs, of "Canyon" in particular. But I do think the Sonnabend heirs were getting a raw tax deal on the value of the work.

I'm glad the IRS relented and that modern art lovers will get a chance to see the Rauschenberg work.

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