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The Intelligent Collector

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by James L. Halperin

Winner of the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Internet Article

Maybe You Should be a Dealer, Not Just a Collector

The downfall and current legal quagmire of Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of $36 billion conglomerate Tyco, began with an investigation and eventual indictment for possible sales and use tax evasion on art purchases. Allegedly, Kozlowski conspired with various New York-based art dealers to ship empty boxes to Tyco headquarters, thus avoiding 8.25% city and state tax, while the $13 million or so worth of paintings by Renoir, Monet, etc. that those boxes were declared to contain were in fact delivered to his 5th Avenue apartment.

He was later fired, purportedly for concealing that investigation from Tyco's board, though his former employer now claims that he concealed far more than that. Kozlowski's attempt to avoid about $1 million in sales tax may have thus cascaded into the loss of his job, multiple criminal indictments and civil lawsuits, and the possible loss of a fortune once pegged at hundreds of millions of dollars. And, perhaps he'll lose his freedom as well. It's amazing what some of us will do to save a few bucks.

If saving money was really that important to Kozlowski, he should have seriously considered becoming a part-time art dealer instead. Starting an art or collectibles business is not difficult for someone with resources. He could have easily appointed one of his cadre of assistants to:

  • Get a legal opinion
  • Register his new business as a sole proprietorship
  • Obtain a resale certificate which exempts him from paying sales tax on anything he truly buys for resale
  • File the quarterly sales tax reports
  • Keep up with market trends for similar pieces so that items can be re-priced when necessary
  • Run ads offering for sale any paintings that had been purchased (sales/use tax-free) as inventory

Maybe Kozlowski would prune his inventory from time to time, selling at auction the occasional piece he no longer cares for. The others would be priced at full retail, though he would still have to show the taxing authorities that the inventory was turning over fast enough to demonstrate real business intent. Of course he would have to pay income tax on the profits, but any losses would be deductible from similar business income. And this method does not remove the legal obligation to pay tax when purchasing any items for personal use rather than resale.

Still, as long as his resale efforts were demonstrably sincere, Kozlowski could have arguably kept some of his paintings on display at his Manhattan apartment, where they would be seen by numerous qualified prospects (by invitation only), pending the eventual opening of the Madison Avenue gallery he intended to someday launch to keep himself busy after his celebrated and distinguished retirement from Tyco.

While admittedly whimsical, my suggestion is not entirely tongue-in-cheek. Almost every collector should consider becoming a dealer, and not just to save sales tax. For one thing, the line between being a dealer and being a collector is blurring: Practically anyone can run auctions on eBay these days, as millions do, or run ads in trade publications and on art and collectibles websites. Furthermore, most collectors should sell pieces, at least occasionally, for reasons totally unrelated to tax minimization. Obviously, you can buy more if you have money coming in from selling off material you don't want as much. Plus, it will help you make better collecting decisions if you think of your collecting as a business. (For details of other advantages of strategic sales, refer to my previous sermon: Why Collectors Should Also Sell.)

Just in case you don't have a crew of assistants (as Kozlowski once had) to do all the work for you, a phone call to a tax attorney should be your first step. Once you have legal advice and decide to go for it, a resale permit can be obtained by writing to your state's Department of Revenue. Many states even allow the application and/or reports to be filed online. Having to fill out the forms yourself can be annoying, but a lot less annoying than a tax fraud indictment.

James L. Halperin is a professional rare coin dealer, futurist and best-selling science fiction novelist, as well as co-owner of Heritage Auctions, the world's largest collectibles auctioneer. Write to him c/o Heritage, 3500 Maple Ave. 17th Floor, Dallas, TX 75219-3941 or email Jim@HA.com.

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