An alleged tax-fraud scheme involving donations of overvalued art to four local museums is part of a larger, unchecked problem with inflated art appraisals that has cost the federal government untold millions, a Times analysis has found.
Each year, the Internal Revenue Service audits donations claimed on only a handful of the 100,000 or more tax returns that allow art donors to reap nearly $1 billion in tax write-offs. Half of the donations checked over the last 20 years had been appraised at nearly double their actual value.
The crux of the public policy problem is the infrequency with which appraisals are checked. It makes all other remedies less effective:
A 2006 law tightened standards and increased penalties on bad appraisals. For donors, it lowered the threshold on what the law considers a bloated appraisal, from 200% overvalue to 150%. It also increased oversight of and fines for appraisers. But because the IRS checks so few appraisals, some believe that overvaluations will continue.This is not a hard problem to solve. Every significant donation should have its appraisal checked by the IRS, and the donor should bear the cost of that process, not the government. There would be fewer small donations of art, but for major pieces, this cost of checking the appraisal would be small relative to the value of the tax deduction.