SARS masters art of tax dodgers

24 July 2011 - 03:46 By Matthew Lester
Tax Talk
Matthew Lester
Matthew Lester

There should be a website for celebrity tax blunders. Boris Becker could feature for visiting his sister and becoming tax-resident in Germany overnight. He got caught by the German tax Gestapo and nearly went to jail.

Keith Richards bunked on a Rolling Stones gig in London because if he played that night he would have been UK-tax domiciled and killed - not by sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, but by tax bills. My favourite is still Picasso. Or rather his estate.

And how the French tax authorities grabbed his personal art collection in lieu of estate duty. And so today more people visit Paris for the love of art than love itself. Only the French could pull that off, some would say - how low can you go to attract tourists?

Ever since Capital Gains Tax was introduced in 2001, the art galleries have punted the line that the gains on art are CGT-free on resale or death. That's true. But be careful not to push it too far and become a fully taxable art dealer.

There are other problems. There is always a risk of being landed with a fake. Then come the insurance and security costs.

Valuable artwork cannot just be left anywhere out of reach of kids or dog drool. Even indirect sunlight can do damage, and oxidisation of the art materials can cause devaluation over time.

"But you don't pay estate duty on art collections when you die," is the retort. Wrong again. Many have got away with estate duty on art collections by dispersing the lot at a family catfight after the wake. But today SARS catches this by examining the deceased's last household insurance policy and then insisting on sworn valuations.

Fifty years ago it was very fashionable to build up an art collection over a lifetime. Where have they all gone? Were they just sold to see owners through cashflow problems?

No. Every time someone dies or gets divorced, the art collection gets split up. Those who don't care, sell their shares. Others just let it rot. And so collections dissipate.

Those who do honestly report the art collection in a deceased estate are rewarded with a hefty estate duty bill in return. And then, because SARS does not accept artwork on payment, a portion of the collection has to be sold off, less hefty selling commissions for the auctioneer.

Perhaps the French have got it right. Great art belongs in galleries, safely away from tax and family squabbles, where the art nerds can look after it and the world can enjoy.

  • Lester is a professor at the Rhodes Business School, Grahamstown