Preserving the artist's heritage

Disposition of Inherited Art

A White Paper Prepared by

Richard Weisgrau

Senior Artists Initiative strives to inform artists and their heirs about the disposition of works of art that will be or are part of an estate.  This paper is aimed at providing inheritors with some insight into options for dealing with such art.  

There are four options for dealing with inherited art.  

Do nothing and simply store the art. This will result is passing the decision making to the next heirs. That could be the worst option because it settles nothing while passing burden on to others in the future. 

Destroy the art. If the art has no market value and no sentimental value it is essentially unwanted. Discarding the works will relieve the inheritor from burdens like storage, maintenance, possibly taxes.

Market the art. This means finding an art dealer or gallery interested in selling the works.  Unless an individual is uniquely skilled and persistent marketing art is an extremely difficult and often unrewarding task.

Donate the art. Inherited art can be donated by the heir(s). If donated to IRS designated 501c3 nonprofit organizations the market value of the donated art can be claimed as a tax deduction. Without a professional appraisal the market value can be difficult to prove.  However, assigning a reasonable value to inherited art is acceptable as long as the heir(s) can substantiate how they arrived at the valuation. Be aware that the IRS tends to be skeptical about the claimed value of donated art. High charitable deductions of anything but cash is usually carefully scrutinized by IRS examiners.

Exhibit the art.  This option is easier said than done. Exhibit space is scarce, and it is sought after by many artists and heirs.  Exhibits are expensive to create and display.  With the exception of galleries or dealers who will sell the art it is not uncommon to be asked for support to defray the exhibition costs. 

Where to donate art.

There are many nonprofit institutions that have bare walls that they would like to cover.  Schools, houses of worship, social service agencies, half way houses, homes for abused women and children, and others often welcome art to create a friendlier environment in their facilities. County offices usually can help you locate prospective recipients. To receive a tax deduction for such a donation it must be made to an IRS designated 501c3 nonprofit.  Be certain to prepare a transfer document for the recipient to sign so you have proof of the donation. State the declared value of the art on the transfer document.

How to explore possible exhibit opportunities.

Be realistic.  Most art is not museum quality.  Museum quality art is readily available for museums. Most museums plan their exhibits at least a year in advance and some can plan three or more years ahead.  If the artist has not had a Museum exhibit, there is little probability that a museum will stage an exhibit unless the artist is otherwise known to the museum curator.

Some colleges and universities exhibit art.  If the artist was connected to either, there is a possibility the artist’s works might be considered for exhibit.  Rest assure that there will be competition from other artists and heirs. 

Art Centers are good prospects for exhibiting. They are regional organizations and are usually particularly interested in works that depict the region. You can locate art centers and museums by city and state by visiting the American Alliance of Museums Website search engine.

Hospitals and corporations sometimes have exhibits. The criteria for selecting art will be specific to their own policies. You will have to contact them to determine their interest and criteria.

Important Considerations

Market value is based upon an artist’s sales over years. It is best to consult a certified art appraiser to discuss valuing art created by financially successful artists. Visit the American Society of Appraisers Website to find a certified appraiser in your area.

If an artist has never sold art, there is no way to determine the market value of inherited art.  The inheritor will have to have a reasonable basis for the value declared in case the IRS questions it.  Usually the donation value of art given by an artist is the cost of materials and expenses that were incurred in creating and donating the art.  The IRS does not allow the financial value of an artist’s time/labor to be declared as part of the donated value. It is best to consult with a estate attorney that has handled artists’ estates in such cases.

If the artist’s estate is not settled an heir should take no action regarding any art without the approval the estate executor and/or the attorney for the estate.  It is also advisable for the heir(s) to consult with an attorney of choice  before suggesting or taking any action.

You can identify an attorney that has the credentials to advise you by contacting your county bar association. Keep in mind that there are many attorneys who have dealt with estate issue.  There are fewer who have dealt with issues of artists’ estates.

Senior Artists Initiative’ (SAI) Expertise

SAI has been trying to assist artists and heirs with the best guidance it can provide in matters such as those above. We make no claim to expertise. We inform based upon experience and lay learning. Nothing in this White Paper is or is intended to be legal, accounting, appraising, or tax advice.

SAI is an all volunteer organization that exists on personal donations.  If you have benefited from this White Paper please consider making an online donation to SAI.  For SAI every donation matters no matter how small.  Thank you.