The short answer is, pretty heavily. The capital gains tax on your net gain from selling a collectible is 28%. Provided you hold the piece for more than one year, you won't pay more than that amount – even if you're in a high tax bracket. Note, however, that this level of tax is considerably higher than the tax rate on most net capital gains, which is an average of 15% for most taxpayers, according to the IRS.

All the same, the 28% rate is advantageous for those in the higher tax brackets compared to taxes on ordinary income – although, by the same measure, those in brackets below 28% will take an extra hit. (For more, see: A Primer on U.S. Tax Rates.)

The tax rate is set at such a high level because the government isn’t a big fan of the buying and selling of collectibles. Unlike business innovations or comprehensive employee training, collectibles aren’t real economic drivers. In short, the government would prefer capital be put toward efforts that help grow gross domestic product. (For more, see: The 5 Industries Driving the U.S Economy.)

However, all of this is irrelevant if you’re someone who wants to sell a collectible and wants to know about all the tax rules. You already know the capital gains tax on the net sale of a collectible, but there’s more to the story. (For more, see: Contemplating Collectible Investments.)

What is a Collectible?

Providing the answer to this question won’t get us very far, since it’s simply “an item worth collecting.” A list of examples will give you a much better idea: 

  • Rare stamps
  • Rare coins
  • Rare books
  • Art
  • Baseball cards
  • Glassware
  • Antiques
  • Fine wine

This list goes on and on, but you get the idea. (For more, see: 6 Major Collectibles Payoffs.)

What Is Your Basis?

When figuring out your tax obligation for selling a collectible, you need to figure out your basis. In order to do this, you can use this simple formula: Cost of item + auction and broker fees = basis. For “cost of item” you can include maintenance and restoration costs. (For more, see: How to Cash in Your Heirlooms.)

If you inherited the collectible, the basis is the fair market value of the item at the time of inheritance, which should be based on an appraisal. If the collectible has not been appraised, the fair market value also can be determined by comps (i.e., the price of similar items). The problem with using comps is it doesn’t take into account the condition of your collectible or the collectible being used for comparison. (For more, see: Should You Insure Your Collectibles?)

Once you establish your basis, subtract the basis from the sale price and you will have your net capital gain.

For example, let’s say you inherited an antique table. The fair market value at the time of inheritance was $5,000. You put $1,000 into it for restoration, which you hoped would help increase its value, upping your basis to $6,000. Fortunately, you were correct, and you sold the table for $7,500. You have a net capital gain of $1,500. Your capital gain obligation at 28% is $420. After taxes, you have $1,500 - $420 = $1,080 in net profit. (For related reading, see: The Easiest Investments Ever Made.)

Important Notes

1. If you sell a collectible in less than one year, it will be taxed as ordinary income. (This could be advantageous if your bracket is less than 28%.)

2. If you buy and sell gold or silver, or gold and silver exchange-traded funds, it will be taxed as a collectible (since gold and silver are considered collectibles). This is important to note so you’re not surprised in the future. (For more, see: The Top 3 Silver ETFs.)

3. Stick to your circle of competence. In other words, if you know everything about rare stamps and nothing about art, you should never put capital in art. The only exception for going out of your comfort zone is in the public markets, where a lot of information is available to help form an investment opinion; this type of information isn’t available in the majority of the collectibles market. (For more, see: 6 Things You Shouldn't Sell at a Garage Sale.)

4. If you use a collectible for personal use (hanging a painting on a wall in your home as opposed to keeping it in storage), then you will not be able to claim a capital loss. (For more, see: Fine Art Can Be a Fine Investment.)

The Bottom Line

The sale of collectibles can lead to a cash windfall, but the tax obligation will be high for most people. If you’re still not 100% sure or comfortable about the sale of a collectible (or collectibles) and you want to minimize your tax obligation, hire a tax advisor. (For more, see: Introduction to Investment Diversification.)

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