An “Artful” Way to Cut Your Tax Bill

“The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.” Mikhail Baryshnikov

If — as I do — you feel it is important to give to worthy charities, here’s a way you can be generous to others while you cut your tax bill by several thousand dollars . . . or, if you’re in a high bracket, by a great deal more. And it’s a way you can cut your tax bill without raising a “red flag,” provided you follow the rules carefully.

This perfectly legitimate strategy came to me from Mike Kuschmann, a fine-arts dealer I’ve known for several years and the author of “Investing in Fine Art” and “Making Money in the Art Market.”

Ordinarily, Mike advises buyers on how to get the best possible prices on paintings, prints, sculptures, and other art items. He knows what, where, and when to buy if you’re looking at art as an investment. But he’s also an expert when it comes to cutting your tax bill by gifting works of art to worthy charities.

It all comes down to a wrinkle in the tax law that enables you to donate a piece to any IRS-approved charity and take a deduction for its “fair market value,” not its “cost basis.”  Let’s say you purchased a print for $1,000 by a then-unknown artist a dozen years ago. Now, that print — and your tax benefit should you donate it — is worth $5,000. This obviously makes a lot more sense than selling the print at its appreciated price, taking a hit for capital gains, and then donating the cash to the charity of your choice.

Of course, the IRS doesn’t make it easy to take advantage of this loophole. Donations of artwork or collectibles valued at $5,000 or more require a written estimate of their fair market value. In addition, the written estimate has to be made fewer than 60 days before you make the donation.

The appraisal must be submitted on IRS form 8283 (Noncash Charitable Contributions Appraisal Summary). The summary must include the date you obtained the piece, its cost, and the manner of its acquisition. This form, signed and dated by both you and the appraiser, needs to be filed with your return for the tax year in which the artwork is donated. The form also needs to include a description of the fee arrangement between you and the appraiser.

Now, this advice may sound like it’s good only for the super-wealthy, but that is not the case. Just about anybody can collect a portfolio of fine art for just a few thousand dollars.

A couple of caveats: First, the IRS requires you to hold these items for one year in order to donate them at their fair market value. That means you need to act before the end of this year to benefit next year. Second, this is a pretty sophisticated tax-cutting technique. You have to be savvy to purchase art that will appreciate over time, and you need to be sure to meet all IRS requirements when taking your deduction. For those reasons, it’s a good idea to get some professional guidance.