Nota bene: The racist-memorabilia tax dodge

Per this press release from Ferris State University, an anonymous donor has gifted some 135 artworks by David Levinthal, “valued at more than $2 million,” to The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

The collection is mostly made up of polaroids from Levinthal’s “Blackface” collection, and the museum seems to be valuing them at $15,000 each.

But how much is a collection of 135 “Blackface” polaroids really worth? The first place to look is, naturally, the auction record for those works. Six of them have come up for auction, according to Artnet, between 2009 and 2016. The results, in chronological order:

  • Sold for $2,160

  • Sold for $850

  • Unsold

  • Sold for $1,625

  • Unsold

  • Unsold

According to the press release, the valuation of this collection is “pending receipt of appraisal.” And while I have no doubt that Levinthal is an important artist, trying to extract $2 million of value out of 135 polaroids is not going to be easy. I can see an argument that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – but I can equally see an argument that no one has ever come close to spending $2 million on David Levinthal art. (His auction record, set in 2009, was just $56,250, for a set of three polaroids.)

Last year there was a brief controversy in Canada over the donation of 2,070 photographs by Annie Leibovitz, which she had sold to an accountant, Harley Mintz, who was trying to donate them to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Under the terms of the donation, the tax write-off he would receive would be significantly greater than his purchase price.

Could something similar be happening here? Were the 135 polaroids sold by Levinthal for rather less than $2 million, so that the anonymous donor could get a nice big tax write-off? So long as the donor remains anonymous, it’s going to be basically impossible to find out. But there’s definitely something a little fishy here.