Overvalued antiquity

Federal authorities are investigating an alleged tax fraud scheme in which Thai antiquities such as this bell, were appraised at inflated values and donated to local museums. (LACMA / March 1, 2008)

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.
LACMA: An article in Sunday's Section A about allegedly inflated appraisals of art said that 10,750 objects had been seized by federal authorities from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and 12 other locations in California and Chicago. No objects were seized from LACMA. Museum officials say about 60 objects are being investigated as part of a probe into alleged import violations and tax fraud. Authorities involved would not specify how many objects had been seized from the other locations. The article also said that in 1982 two senior LACMA officials had accepted objects with inflated values and signed backdated donation forms. LACMA says that it does not consider one of the officials involved, a registrar, to be a senior official. —

These IRS reviews caught $183 million in exaggerated claims over the last two decades. But that probably represents a small fraction of the total problem, according to a more detailed 2006 study by the agency's inspector general.

In recent years, the IRS has reduced even further the number of appraisals it checks, part of a broader decline in the number of tax returns audited. If that smaller sample is any indication, overvaluations appear to be getting worse.

In 2004, for instance, the IRS' appraisers checked only seven of the 108,554 tax returns with donations of art. They found that more than a third of the 184 objects claimed on those returns were overvalued -- on average more than three times their true worth.

"It totally blows me away," said Ralph Lerner, a tax attorney in New York who represents many art donors. "I didn't know there was that much abuse."

The issue was highlighted in January, when federal agents raided four Southern California museums while investigating an alleged tax fraud scheme involving the donation of overvalued Asian and Native American artifacts.

Since the raids, federal agents have seized more than 10,750 objects from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and nine other locations in California and Chicago, authorities say.

It is appraisers, not museums, who determine the value of art for donors. But the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles is investigating whether museum officials furthered the scheme by knowingly accepting donations of overvalued art from suspect dealers and collectors over a decade, according to affidavits filed in January.

The allegations mirror past tax fraud scandals in which museums such as LACMA, the Smithsonian Institution and the J. Paul Getty Museum accepted donations of art whose value was inflated.

The federal government has long sought to balance incentives for art donors with the risks of tax fraud. Some lawmakers are now saying that balance should be reconsidered in light of possibly widespread fraud.

"It may be that some donors submit inflated appraisals because they know they probably won't get caught," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is considering legislation that would require additional scrutiny of appraisals.

Other critics are suggesting more fundamental reforms. Robert Reich, an economist and former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, recently argued that charitable donations that do not directly benefit the poor, such as art, should be eligible for only half their value in tax benefits.

"We've created a giant loophole right now through which the rich reduce their taxes by supporting culture palaces frequented primarily by themselves," Reich said in an interview. "This is not the way the tax code was intended to be used."

Museum officials warn, however, that changes to the current system could have serious consequences. For more than a century, tax write-offs have been the economic engine that has built public art collections across the country. More than 80% of acquisitions now come through donations, according to the Assn. of Art Museum Directors. "If something were to happen to the deductibility of art, it would be disastrous," said Anita Difanis, a lobbyist for the association.

The tax fraud scheme alleged in the recent Los Angeles-area investigation appears petty in scale, but its resemblance to past cases suggests that questionable practices remain pervasive.

Authorities allege in affidavits that Robert Olson imported shipping containers full of recently excavated Thai antiquities into Los Angeles and sold them to collectors and art dealers with the promise that he could arrange appraisals that would boost their value by four or five times.