That’s one way to increase tax revenue from the rich. If you can’t get Congress to pass the Buffett Rule, why not just start taxing phantom income instead?

They want their money, even if you don’t get yours.

The object under discussion is “Canyon,” a masterwork of 20th-century art created by Robert Rauschenberg that Sonnabend’s children inherited when she died in 2007.

Because the work, a sculptural combine, includes a stuffed bald eagle, a bird under federal protection, the heirs would be committing a felony if they ever tried to sell it. So their appraisers have valued the work at zero. But the IRS takes a different view. It has appraised “Canyon” at $65 million and is demanding that the owners pay $29.2 million in taxes…

While art lovers may appreciate the IRS’ aesthetic sensibilities, some estate planners, tax lawyers and collectors are alarmed at the agency’s position, arguing the case could upend the standard practice of valuing assets according to their sale in a normal market. IRS guidelines say that in figuring an item’s fair market value, taxpayers should “include any restrictions, understandings, or covenants limiting the use or disposition of the property.”

The owners inherited a cool $1 billion in art from their mother but have had to sell nearly $600 million worth to cover the federal and estate taxes. As for the eagle, they can either (a) keep it and come up with $29 million, (b) sell it and go to jail for that, (c) refuse to pay the tax and go to jail for that, or (d) accept the feds’ valuation and come up with the $29 million, then donate the sculpture to charity and take a relatively small charitable deduction every year for the next … 75 years. I’m honestly curious to see if the IRS backs down now that there’s been some media attention to this or if they figure, as their boss does, that the public’s sufficiently hostile to rich people that they can play hardball here by demanding a tax on an asset that can’t legally generate income. Which way are we betting? Let me know in the comments!