Why your art collection should be part of your estate planning

Estate planning

Art collections are an emotionally charged part of your estate. Here's how to prepare for a smooth transfer to the next generation.


As any art collector knows, the allure of art lies in how it makes you feel. However, feelings aren’t easily passed between generations. A collection that has taken decades to build can be met with ambivalence by the next generation, and the personal significance of a particular work of art can easily fade with the death of its owner. This is why art is nuanced when viewed as an asset.

“Art is a tricky topic—unlike other parts of an estate, it can be a very personal and emotional asset,” says Leanne Kaufman, president and CEO, RBC Royal Trust. That emotional connection can make it both an urgent and complicated part of a legacy to preserve, causing collectors to put off the conversation about where art belongs within an estate.

According to Deloitte’s Art & Finance Report 2021 , only 31 percent of collectors who plan to leave art to their family say they’ve specifically discussed what they’ll bequeath and allotted the resources to ensure the art is properly cared for. Just over one in 10 collectors surveyed say they’ve formalized their estate documents with advisors.

However, not considering art as part of your estate planning could be detrimental to your legacy. “If it isn’t specifically addressed in the Will, or some other arrangement isn’t made, then it just falls into the residue of the estate,” says Kaufman. Residuary assets—the remainder of the estate after specific bequests of particular assets, as well as debts, fees and taxes are paid—are distributed to the residual beneficiaries, and if they are named as a class like “my children” or “my nieces and nephews” then a decision will need to be made about who will get the art. It’s often difficult to equally divide art in this way.

If your art collection is meaningful, then the appropriate legacy-planning steps need to be taken to protect it for future generations.

Create a detailed archive of your art collection

The first step to preserving an art collection as part of your wealth and estate plan is compiling a clear inventory in an artwork archive database. “There are certain parameters that can be followed,” says Sara Johnson, vice president, High-Net-Worth Planning Services, International Estate, Art and Digital Legacy Planning at RBC Wealth Management in Canada.

The Getty Object ID, one of several internationally recognized parameters in the art and antiquities market, has nine information categories, ranging from the type of object, title, and date or period, to materials and techniques, distinguishing features and measurements. “You need a very thoughtful, precise description that identifies the item as either fine art or collectible, and as much evidence as possible of provenance tracing it back to the artist,” says Johnson. Knowing how a particular piece of art came to be within a collection is the first step in deciding where it will go next.

Discuss your art estate plan with your family

The raw data in an artwork archive is the bare minimum, says Johnson. Storytelling is an equally important part of preserving a collection, especially when convincing the next generation of what makes the work meaningful. “I had a collector who recorded himself talking about why he bought each piece and why it was significant,” she says. “The family was astounded, because it added so much life to the collection.”

The estate-planning process opens the door for candid conversations surrounding the artwork owner’s intention and the intentions of the heirs it’s expected to pass to upon death. In some cases, there’s a chance the next generation isn’t interested in maintaining the family art collection. Maybe the plan is to pass the collection on to a museum, sell to another private collector or build a new museum to house the collection, says Johnson. “If you don’t have informed conversations with these institutions, then you’re left with having them apply their boilerplate template [rights] and that could lead to disappointment.”

Discussing your art estate plan with your family lays the foundation for a formal strategy.

Leave no parameters overlooked

While art is subjective, there are some very specific considerations for handling an art collection within an estate. “As an executor or the person who’s responsible for helping finalize the estate of the individual, you need to know what you’re doing when it comes to art,” says Kaufman.

Practical considerations include how the collection is being stored, insured and transported. “There’s a lot of intricacies around just the practical side,” she adds. “How do you value it for probate purposes? How do you value it for tax purposes? You need someone who you trust—an expert in the field who can do that appraisal piece of it as well.”

Ownership is another big question. Kaufman says it’s important to lay out in your estate plan whether the art is an outright gift for the individual to do whatever they want with it or part of a wider legacy plan. If it’s the latter, a trust can be a useful tool for plotting the course of the collection and protecting it from creditors.

“There are tax implications people don’t necessarily think about,” says Kaufman. “It’s an asset that has probably appreciated, so there could be capital gain payable on it.”

Johnson points out that knowing the value of the collection and its intended path can dictate whether it makes sense to gift the collection to family, a museum or charity while you’re living or upon your death. But mostly, she says, estate planning is about legacy as opposed to tax implications. “You never know what the piece is going to be worth when you die.”

Honour your collection in a way that makes sense to you

Like other assets, art requires stewardship and planning that stretch far beyond tax and legal considerations. For collectors, art can tell a story, and its meaning depends on preserving that story. But Johnson says there are cases in which the emotional value of a work can get overlooked when it comes time to distribute the estate to the next generation. That can lead to tension between family members who feel an estate is divided unevenly.

“So unless there’s a really clear prologue and storytelling from the collectors to their family and to their children, it’s all missed in accounting,” says Johnson.

Putting your art collection in your wealth and estate plan can help alleviate any tension and bring the next generation into the discussion.

RBC Wealth Management is a business segment of Royal Bank of Canada. Please click the “Legal” link at the bottom of this page for further information on the entities that are member companies of RBC Wealth Management. The content in this publication is provided for general information only and is not intended to provide any advice or endorse/recommend the content contained in the publication.

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