The Race for a Tax Break: How Buyers Circumvent ‘Use Taxes’ on Art
December 5, 2019
By Emma Kleiner
When Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) by Francis Bacon sold last November in New York for $142.4 million, the art world wondered about the identity of the unnamed buyer and the location of the triptych’s new home. Subsequently, the identity of the triptych’s anonymous buyer was revealed: the buyer was Elaine Wynn, who divorced Las Vegas casino owner Stephen A. Wynn in 2010. Although Ms. Wynn is a resident of Nevada, in December 2013, Three Studies of Lucian Freud made its surprising post-auction debut at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. While the decision to anonymously lend the painting to the Museum may appear surprising at first, the Portland Art Museum regularly attracts recently auctioned items to display in its galleries. The decision for collectors to regularly lend to the Portland Art Museum originates from a reason more basic than the Museum’s location, collection, or galleries – it is based on a tax break.
Although Ms. Wynn has not released the tax plan for Three Studies of Lucian Freud, her tactical decision to show the triptych in Oregon instead of shipping it to her Las Vegas home from Christie’s in New York likely helped her to avoid use taxes in her home state, which, in her case, may have reached $11 million. Use taxes incur when an individual sends home an out-of-state purchase. By shipping recently purchased artwork out of state immediately, the collector avoids the state’s sales tax, but use taxes are in place to make up for that loss. Still, a collector can avoid their home state’s use tax by utilizing a little known loophole. Usually, artwork is subject to a use tax in the state where it arrives after it is shipped from its purchase location, but five states—Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon—do not have a use tax. In contrast, California, which established a use tax in 1935, has a use tax rate of 8.75% and Nevada, which established a use tax in 1955, has a use tax rate of 6.85%. By the time the artwork arrives in the owner’s home state, it has already been “used” in another state, and thus no use taxes are owed. This clever tactic allows art buyers, who sometimes pay tens of millions for artwork, to relocate the artwork to their private residence tax-free.
Similar to the Portland Art Museum, museums in tax-free use states often encourage collectors to loan recently purchased artwork before it disappears into private homes. For example, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, has experienced such an influx of recently auctioned artwork that they established a program called Masterworks on Loan, which “invites private collectors to share their masterworks with our constituents.” With a nod to the favorable tax breaks provided by Oregon, the Museum’s website proclaims, “Some lenders may receive tax benefits for participating in our Masterworks on Loan program and should consult a tax advisor to learn more.”
While the decision for an art buyer to exhibit their purchase at a small museum in a tax-free use state may at first seem like an innocuous opportunity for the expansion of arts education, there is a tension between that idea and the harm to the buyer’s home state that usually receives the revenues from use taxes. Upcoming auctions will provide the art world with the opportunity to see if this tax loophole becomes more prevalent. If it does become popular, individual states may be motivated to change their tax code to make up for the loss that is incurred when art is first displayed in a tax-free use state. Later this month, Christie’s in London will auction another triptych by Francis Bacon, entitled Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984), estimated sales value between $4.4 and 5.8 million If purchased by an American collector, it is easy to imagine that this work, too, may head to an exhibit in Oregon shortly thereafter.
- Carol Vogel, Buyer of $142.4 Million Bacon Triptych Identified as Elaine Wynn, N.Y. Times, Jan. 15, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/arts/design/buyer-of-142-4-million-bacon-painting-identified-as-elaine-wynn.html.
- Graham Bowley and Patricia Cohen, Buyers Find Tax Break on Art: Let It Hang Awhile in Oregon, April 12, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/business/buyers-find-tax-break-on-art-let-it-hang-awhile-in-portland.html?hp&_r=1.
- How to Save $68,469 in Taxes, N.Y. Times, April 12, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/13/arts/art-tax-havens.html.
- The Norton Simon Rule, April 14, 2013, Blouin Artinfo, http://blogs.artinfo.com/lacmonfire/2014/04/14/the-norton-simon-rule.
About the Author: Emma Kleiner is a student at Stanford Law School.
Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.