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The sky-high prices that famous paintings are bringing at auction may put the world's great art out of reach for public museums. A 1986 change in federal tax law is causing collectors to sell their paintings rather than donate them to museums, which cannot afford to pay the record prices commanded at auction.

At separate auctions held recently, Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" was sold for a record $82.5 million, and Pierre Auguste Renoir's "At the Moulin de la Galette" brought $78.1 million. The purchaser of both paintings was Ryoei Saito, the 74-year-old chairman emeritus of Japan's Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co.Most museums simply cannot afford to deal in that kind of money. They work with limited budgets and depend on gifts from wealthy benefactors to expand their collections. That avenue has been partially cut off by the 1986 tax reform law which changed the tax treatment of gifts in ways that discourages donation of works of art. Previously, art patrons could claim the fair market value of paintings as a tax deduction.

A survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors found that patrons donated $143 million worth of art in 1986 but only $67 million in 1988.

History's 15 highest-priced art sales have occurred since the 1986 law took effect, beginning with the March 1987 sale of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" for $39.9 million. The Japanese have bought five of the 11 costliest masterpieces.

This is not only causing masterpieces to leave the country, but it is tempting museums to sell off some of their masterpieces to get funds for other art purchases. Steps need to be taken quickly to protect these works of art and to control the outrageous prices.

That is why Congress should pass the legislation sponsored by Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., which would restore the tax treatment of charitable gifts of appreciated property.