MoMA beats out Met for landmark artwork “Canyon” — thanks for a stuffed eagle

Part 2 of the tax feud between the IRS and the Sonnabend family over Robert Rauschenberg’s famous combine “Canyon” has finally come to a close, as I wrote in this Times story.

As those in the museum world know though, this round went to MoMA, but the next could easily go to the Met.

MoMA Gains Treasure That Met Also Coveted

Published: November 28, 2012 73 Comments

When Glenn D. Lowry arrived 17 years ago as director of the Museum of Modern Art, he and the curator Kirk Varnedoe sat down and wrote out a list of the 10 works they most wanted. “Canyon,” a landmark of 20th-century art by Robert Rauschenberg, was at the top, Mr. Lowry recalled.

Now that wish has come true. “Canyon” is to go on display on Wednesday at the Modern after being captured in a contest with its uptown sister, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it had resided on and off since 2005. Its owners agreed to donate the work as part of a $41 million settlement with the Internal Revenue Service.

MoMA made a concerted effort to woo the work’s owners, the children of the New York art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, who died in 2007. Mr. Lowry said it agreed to add their mother’s name to the Founders Wall in the lobby of the museum (which was established in 1929, when Ms. Sonnabend was 15), and to devote an entire show to “Canyon” and Ms. Sonnabend, an important figure who helped introduce and nurture modernist artists.

Though the Met also offered a spot on its lobby wall and an exhibition, the Sonnabend family’s lawyer, Ralph Lerner, said in the end the children thought “Canyon” — a mixed-media collage from 1959 known as a “combine” — would have a higher profile and greater context at MoMA, which already has a rich collection of these combines.

Here’s the reason for the tax dispute:

The presence of a bald eagle — a bird protected by federal laws — means that the work cannot be legally sold or traded. So when the Sonnabend children, Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem, inherited “Canyon,” five years ago, their appraisers valued it at zero. The I.R.S., however, insisted this masterwork was worth $65 million. It demanded they pay estate taxes of $29.2 million plus another $11.7 million in penalties.

As part of the settlement, the I.R.S. dropped the tax assessment; in exchange, the family was required to donate “Canyon” to a museum where it would be publicly exhibited and claim no tax deduction, Mr. Lerner said.



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