As he stood in the opulent marble foyer of a Fifth Avenue mansion late last month, greeting the coterie of prominent guests arriving at his private art gallery, Ronald S. Lauder was doing more than just being a gracious host.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Neue Galerie, Mr. Lauder’s museum of Austrian and German art, he exhibited many of the treasures of a personal collection valued at more than $1 billion, including works by Van Gogh, Cézanne and Matisse, and a Klimt portrait he bought five years ago for $135 million.
Yet for Mr. Lauder, an heir to the Estée Lauder fortune whose net worth is estimated at more than $3.1 billion, the evening went beyond social and cultural significance. As is often the case with his activities, just beneath the surface was a shrewd use of the United States tax code. By donating his art to his private foundation, Mr. Lauder has qualified for deductions worth tens of millions of dollars in federal income taxes over the years, savings that help defray the hundreds of millions he has spent creating one of New York City’s cultural gems.
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The charitable deductions generated by Mr. Lauder — whose donations have aided causes as varied as hospitals and efforts to rebuild Jewish identity in Eastern Europe — are just one facet of a sophisticated tax strategy used to preserve a fortune that Forbes magazine says makes him the world’s 362nd wealthiest person. From offshore havens to a tax-sheltering stock deal so audacious that Congress later enacted a law forbidding the tactic, Mr. Lauder has for decades aggressively taken advantage of tax breaks that are useful only for the most affluent.
The debate over whether to reduce tax shelters and preferences for the rich is one of the most volatile in Washington and will move to the presidential campaign, now that repeated attempts in Congress to strike a grand bargain over spending cuts and an overhaul of the tax code have failed.
A handful of billionaires like Warren E. Buffett and Bill Gates have joined Democrats in calling for an elimination of the breaks, saying that the current system adds to the budget deficit, contributes to the widening income gap between the richest and the rest of society, and shifts the tax burden onto small businesses and the middle class. Republicans have resisted, saying the tax increases on the wealthy would harm the economy and cost jobs.
An examination of public documents involving Mr. Lauder’s companies, investments and charities offers a glimpse of the wide array of legal options for the world’s wealthiest citizens to avoid taxes both at home and abroad.
His vast holdings — which include hundreds of millions in stock, one of the world’s largest private collections of medieval armor, homes in Washington, D.C., and on Park Avenue as well as oceanfront mansions in Palm Beach and the Hamptons — are organized in a labyrinth of trusts, limited liability corporations and holding companies, some of which his lawyers acknowledge are intended for tax purposes. The cable television network he built in Central Europe, CME Enterprises, maintains an official headquarters in the tax haven of Bermuda, where it does not operate any stations.
And earlier this year, Mr. Lauder used his stake in the family business, Estée Lauder Companies, to create a tax shelter to avoid as much as $10 million in federal income tax for years. In June, regulatory filings show, Mr. Lauder entered into a sophisticated contract to sell $72 million of stock to an investment bank in 2014 at a price of about 75 percent of its current value in exchange for cash now. The transaction, known as a variable prepaid forward, minimizes potential losses for shareholders and gives them access to cash. But because the I.R.S. does not classify this as a sale, it allows investors like Mr. Lauder to defer paying taxes for years.
It was a common tax reduction strategy for chief executives and wealthy shareholders a decade ago, but in 2006 the I.R.S. said it appeared to be an abusive tax shelter and issued tighter restrictions to regulate the practice. That ruling was enough to persuade most wealthy taxpayers to abandon the technique, according to tax lawyers and records at the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Advisers to Mr. Lauder maintain that his deal “was made in compliance with published I.R.S. guidance on these types of transactions and was fully reported as required by S.E.C. rules,” said his spokesman, Gary Lewi.
In theory, Mr. Lauder is scheduled to pay taxes on the $72 million when the shares are actually delivered in 2014. But tax experts say wealthy taxpayers can use other accounting techniques to further defer their payment.
The tax burden on the nation’s superelite has steadily declined in recent decades, according to a sliver of data released annually by the I.R.S. The effective federal income tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers, representing the top 0.000258 percent, fell from about 30 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2008, the most recent data available.
When Mr. Lauder ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for mayor of New York and released his tax return to the public, he reported paying 30 percent in total federal, state and city taxes on about $30 million in income in 1988. At the time, his net worth was estimated at nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
Mr. Lauder’s more recent tax returns remain private, and he declined to make them available for this article.
The Family Fortune
Mr. Lauder, now 67, was born into a storied American fortune. His mother, Estée Lauder, the daughter of Eastern European immigrants, began selling homemade beauty creams at a few New York City hair salons in the 1940s and built her product line into a multibillion-dollar global empire.
As the son of a fabulously wealthy fashion icon, Mr. Lauder developed aristocratic tastes — and grand aspirations — at an early age. He summered in Vienna as a boy, developing a passion for Austrian art and medieval armor. At age 13, he bought his first Schiele with money from his bar mitzvah. Mr. Lauder grew so enthralled by politics as a young man that he told friends he dreamed of becoming the first Jewish president of the United States.
After studying in Brussels and Paris and at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the family business in 1964 and served in a variety of limited roles. While his older brother Leonard rose to become Estée Lauder’s chief executive, Ronald engaged in a variety of pursuits: becoming a major Republican fund-raiser; serving a rocky tenure as ambassador to Austria; running for mayor, an unsuccessful bid in which he spent $363 for each vote he received; and starting an assortment of business ventures in Eastern Europe, one of which went bankrupt during the technology bubble.
While the family’s wealth was created by hard work and ingenuity, it was bolstered by aggressive tax planning, a skill that has become Ronald Lauder’s specialty. When Mr. Lauder’s father, Joseph, died in 1983, family members fought the I.R.S. for more than a decade to reduce their estate tax. The dispute involved a block of shares bequeathed to the family — the estate valued it at $29 million, while the I.R.S. placed it at $89.5 million. A panel of judges ultimately decided on $50 million, a decision that saved the estate more than $20 million in taxes.
Estée Lauder Companies went public in 1995, and Ronald Lauder and his mother cashed in hundreds of millions of dollars in stock but managed to sidestep paying tens of millions in federal capital gains taxes by using a hedging technique known as shorting against the box.
Together, Mr. Lauder and his mother borrowed 13.8 million shares of company stock from relatives and sold them to the public during the offering at $26 a share. Selling borrowed shares in this way is referred to as a short position. Since the Lauders retained their own shares, the maneuver allowed them to have a neutral position in the stock, not subject to price swings. Under I.R.S. rules at the time, they avoided paying as much as $95 million in capital gains taxes that might otherwise have been due had they sold their own shares.
Such transactions allowed investors to cash in their shareholdings without paying taxes. But the Lauders’ use of the technique was so aggressive that Congress enacted a law afterward that limited the length of the tax deferral. And the Lauders eventually paid tens of millions in stock from the transaction.
Still, the family’s tax planning was effective enough that after Estée Lauder died in 2004, she passed down nearly $4 billion to her heirs, according to tax experts who studied the case and estimated that the estate was taxed at an effective rate of 16 percent — about a third of the top estate tax rate at the time.
Ronald Lauder has not been a director of the company since 2009, but he still serves as the president of its Clinique Laboratories subdivision. He also sublets a full floor of office space from Estée Lauder, on the 42nd story of the General Motors Building in Manhattan, which serves as the hub for the matrix of foundations, investment funds, partnerships and trusts used to control his businesses and personal finances.
His stake in Estée Lauder Companies, according to regulatory filings, is valued at more than $600 million. Nearly $400 million of that stock is pledged to secure various lines of credit. Many financial planners consider it imprudent for principal shareholders in a company to borrow against their stock. But it remains a popular way for wealthy taxpayers to get cash out of their holdings without selling and paying taxes.
There is a certain irony that Mr. Lauder has used $72 million worth of his Estée Lauder shares to carry out his latest state-of-the-art tax reduction tactic. These contracts emerged as a popular tool about a decade ago and were developed by accountants and tax planners after Congress closed down the loophole on the Estée Lauder public offering. The I.R.S. began cracking down on these contracts in 2008, and has pursued a prominent case against the billionaire Philip Anschutz, who used one to avoid more than $140 million in federal taxes.
Whether or not the I.R.S. agrees with Mr. Lauder’s contention that his contract is legitimate, some tax policy experts say the deal illustrates how the wealthy take advantage of the system.
“There’s real truth to the idea that the tax code for the 1 percent is different from the tax code for the 99 percent,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “Any taxpayer lucky enough to have appreciated property is usually put to a choice: cash out and pay some tax, or hold the property and risk the vagaries of the market. Only the truly rich can use derivatives to get the best of both worlds — lots of cash and very little risk.”
While Mr. Lauder’s stock holdings in publicly traded companies show some of his tactics, much of his wealth is harder to examine because it is controlled by a maze of privately held trusts and companies. Court documents, S.E.C. filings and property tax records spotlight a few of the more ordinary tax breaks used by affluent people.
Significant portions of his inherited stock are held in family trusts, which reduce the ultimate estate tax. Mr. Lauder and his wife have also established their own family trusts, allowing them to bequeath their wealth to their heirs with minimal taxes.
Other trusts and partnerships control his real estate properties in Palm Beach and the Hamptons and at 740 Park Avenue, a building that was once home to John D. Rockefeller, and is known as one of the world’s wealthiest apartment buildings.
United States tax law allows taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest on one’s homes up to $1.1 million in debt. Households with more than $1 million in income claimed more than $27 billion in such deductions from 2006 to ’09, according to a report this month by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who said some wealthy taxpayers even deducted mortgage interest on their yachts.
And there is no limit on the amount of property taxes that can be deducted from federal income. So Mr. Lauder is entitled to deduct the $400,000 he pays annually on his Palm Beach mansion as well as what he pays on his home on Park Avenue and his holdings in the Hamptons.
“This welfare for the well-off — costing billions of dollars a year — is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate, many who are working two jobs just to make ends meet, and i.o.u.’s to be paid off by future generations,” said Senator Coburn, a Republican, who has called for limits on tax breaks for high earners.
Mr. Lauder deducts property taxes on all of his holdings, his spokesman said. Mr. Lauder declined to say how much that reduced his federal taxes, but said he did not receive tax benefits in some years because of the alternative minimum tax and other limits.
Charity and Tax Breaks
A week before the opening at the Neue Galerie last month, Mr. Lauder appeared at another gala, 40 blocks south, at the New York Public Library, to receive the Carnegie Foundation’s Medal of Philanthropy.
The program honored people who have given profusely to charities, including Mr. Lauder’s brother Leonard and his wife, Evelyn (who died Nov. 12), whose causes include the Whitney Museum and the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer awareness.
Ronald Lauder and his wife, Jo Carole, were honored for a variety of contributions: the work of their joint foundation supporting hospitals, rebuilding monuments and refurbishing American embassies around the world — more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the last five years, according to his spokesman.
The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to rebuild Jewish communities devastated by the Holocaust and communist rule. Mr. Lauder has also given to a variety of Jewish and Israeli organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, where he has served as president since 2007. Richard Parsons, the former Time Warner chairman, presented the award, calling Mr. Lauder and his wife two of “the nation’s pre-eminent supporters of the arts and civic causes.”
Mr. Lauder said his life was changed 25 years ago when he visited a kindergarten in Austria and met a classroom full of Jewish children who were refugees from Russia. Still, he said he found it odd to be referred to as a philanthropist.
“I did what I wanted to do,” he said. “What I thought was right.”
A Passion for Art
In the United States, Mr. Lauder has focused on what he calls his greatest passion — art.
In 1976, at age 32, his generous donations helped him become the youngest trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He later served as chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and remains an honorary chairman. He has donated and lent artwork to an assortment of museums. Part of his collection of lavishly decorated ceremonial armor is on display at the Met, in a gallery named for him.
As all art collectors may, Mr. Lauder is entitled to deduct the full market value of artworks donated to museums. (For years, Mr. Lauder availed himself of a quirk in the tax code that allowed donors to take a deduction for donating a portion of an artwork, without actually turning over the art. That break, known as fractional donation, was eliminated in 2006.) The tax code also allows artwork in offices to be deducted as a business expense.
Unlike some wealthy collectors who are criticized for using tax breaks to underwrite private collections that offer little access to the public, Mr. Lauder is widely praised for making his artwork a community asset.
The Neue Galerie, created by Mr. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky, who died in 1996, in a mansion once owned by Cornelia Vanderbilt, offers public viewing of an exquisite collection, worth more than $200 million even before Mr. Lauder added dozens of pieces for its 10th anniversary.
Sheldon Cohen, a former I.R.S. commissioner, said that when used as intended, the tax code’s breaks for art collectors balance private interests with the public good.
“If an art collector makes significant contributions, and the public actually gets access to the works they are donating, then the major thing the collector gets is prestige and social status,” said Mr. Cohen, now a lawyer in Washington.
At times, Mr. Lauder’s efforts to enhance his art collection have coincided with tax avoidance techniques.
In 2006, three months after he agreed to pay $135 million, a record at the time, for the Klimt painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” Mr. Lauder sold a $190 million stake in his broadcast network CME.
When asked about the sale, Mr. Lauder’s spokesman said the proceeds were taxable in the United States at the full capital gains rate. Even then, though, CME’s complex corporate structure — it operates in Central Europe, is organized as a Netherlands holding company, keeps its headquarters in Bermuda and routed the $190 million sale through two Cayman Island companies — allowed Mr. Lauder to minimize taxes in countries outside the United States where it does business.
Some tax reform advocates say that it is unfair that the wealthiest can subsidize their lifestyles using myriad offshore maneuvers and complex accounting strategies.
“It’s admirable when people back their charitable impulses up with donations,” said Scott Klinger, tax policy director of the group Business for Shared Prosperity. “But the tax code shouldn’t allow the wealthy the kind of loopholes that let them, essentially, force other taxpayers to underwrite donations to their pet causes.”