There's A Massive Tax Break Behind Estee Lauder Heir's $1 Billion Art Donation

leonard lauder

Leonard Lauder, the billionaire heir to cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, just donated an unprecedented 78 Cubist paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It’s a gift so monumental that even art appraisers have shied away from assigning an exact dollar value (Forbes is throwing around a $1.1 billion estimate, while one appraiser told ABC News it could be as much as $2 billion).

Lauder himself has been a long-time lover and collector of art, a well as a prominent philanthropist in the art world. Just five years ago, he endowed more than $130 million to the Whitney Museum of Art and last year he donated $1 billion worth of art to his own private art gallery, the museum Austrian and German art. 

“Whenever I’ve given something to a museum, I’ve wanted it to be transformative,” Lauder told the New York Times of his donation to the Met. “This wasn’t a bidding war. I went knocking, and the door opened easily.”

But there’s no denying that behind that door was more than just the opportunity to cement his legacy for decades to come –– Lauder is also employing one of the most commonly used tax strategies of the wealthy. 

A master of tax evasion 

Lauder is no stranger to working the tax code in his favour. He’s often cited in arguments for getting rid of the cushy tax breaks for charitable giving that hugely benefit the uber wealthy.

For example, it’s no coincidence that his cable television network, CME Enterprises, maintains an official headquarters in Bermuda, a well-known tax haven. In a 2011 investigative piece by the New York Times‘, it was revealed that Lauder used his stake in Estée Lauder to create a tax shelter that allowed him to skirt around “as much a $10 million in federal income taxes for years.” 

His latest gift to the Met, though obviously a move that will immortalise him in the art world, is also conveniently another opportunity to reduce his taxable income.  

“There’s always a motivation behind this kind of donation,” Wayne Steiger, founder of FlowPay, a mobile platform for charitable giving, told Business Insider. 

“No. 1, I think people are generous, but in this day and age when you’re doing tax planning, those things also have a great benefit to their estate.” 

Current U.S. tax code allows taxpayers to deduct charitable donations up to 30 per cent of their adjusted gross income (AGI), which means Lauder could be looking at a $300 million-dollar tax break –– and that’s based on Forbes’ conservative $1 billion appraisal of his Cubist collection. 

“You can only deduct so much of your AGI, but the balance can be carried forward to another tax year,” said Janet Briaud, chief investment officer of Briaud Financial Advisors in College Station, Texas. 

“That means you may not be able to deduct the whole value of the gift right away, but it may be deductible over a number of years.” 

So is this donation the legacy Lauder is looking for, or simply a way to minimize his tax bill? 

Chances are it’s a combination of both. Lauder spent more than four decades –– half his life –– meticulously cultivating his Cubist collection, which includes 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris.

“For most people who give things like this, there’s an issue of wanting to pass on something more [than just money],” Briaud said. “They want to make a difference. It doesn’t have to be totally selfish, but it could be trying to leave that legacy. It’s all part of the [estate] planning process.”

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