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Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon Donated to MoMA

The New York Times’s Patricia Cohen reports that Nina Sundell and Antonio Homem, the children and heirs of art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, have donated Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Combine Canyon, 1959, to the Museum of Modern Art.

The work has been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum since 2005. But Sundell and Homem decided to gift it to MoMA after the museum made a concerted pitch for the work, agreeing to add Ileana Sonnabend’s name to the Founders Wall in the museum lobby and to devote an entire exhibition to Canyon and Sonnabend.

The work is being donated to MoMA as part of a $41 million settlement with the Internal Revenue Service. Canyon features a bald eagle, which prevents it from being legally sold or traded; so when Sundell and Homem inherited the Sonnabend estate, they listed the work’s value at zero. The IRS claimed the work was worth $65 million, and demanded that the heirs pay an estate tax of $29.2 million in addition to $11.7 million in penalties.

In the end, the IRS agreed to settle with the family so long as the work was donated to a museum and that they claimed no tax deduction. Two federal statutes, in fact, make it a crime to even possess a bald eagle. But Sonnabend was allowed to keep Canyon thanks to a notarized statement from Rauschenberg that explained that the eagle had been stuffed by one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders before the passage of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.