Steve Martin gives a lesson on sales taxes

Steve Martin's new novel 'An Object of Beauty' includes a scene in which state sales tax plays a critical role.

Larry Downing / Reuters / File
Actor and author Steve Martin arrives at the annual Mark Twain Prize awards ceremony for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Nov. 9. His new novels includes an accurate (if brief) portrayal of the role of state sales tax in inter-state commerce.

Steve Martin–yes, the wild and crazy guy–has a new novel. “An Object of Beauty” tells the story of Lacey Yeager, an up-and-comer in New York’s art world in the mid-1990s. I’m 19% of the way through the novel (up to location 779 in Kindle-speak), during which Lacey has been climbing the ladder at Sotheby’s, the famous auction house.

Thus far, my favorite passage depicts how sensitive wealthy art collectors can be to taxes. Sotheby’s has sent Lacey to Washington to deliver a painting to the winning bidder in a recent auction. After getting off her train, Lacey heads over to Georgetown:

The white door of the brownstone swung open with a faint jingle-bell tinkle, and Saul Nathanson waved with full panic shouting, “Don’t come up the steps!”

So many interpretations. Was he shouting at Lacey, the painting, or the taxi driver? “Don’t step on the walkway!” Was the concrete wet? But Saul ran toward them more sheepish than commanding, and they all stayed put.

“I thought by having you bring the picture,” Paul said, panting, “that we were taking delivery of the picture in Washington. But it seems to be disputable that this might constitute taking delivery in New York.”

Lacey looked at Saul, then at the taxi driver. He pulled his cap back and scratched his head. “Oh yeah, sales tax,” he said.

“What?” said Lacey.

“My wife sells jewelry. There’s always a sales tax issue.”

Saul pointed at the driver with a silent “bingo.” “We’ve got to have it shipped to us from New York by a reputable carrier.”

Lacey muttered, “I’m reputable.”

“But unlicensed. We’ve got a questionable situation here. You’ve got to take it back. It’s a difference of almost ten thousand dollars,” said Saul.

The statement hung in the air, until the taxi driver said, “You mean that box is worth a hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”

Lacey turned to him. “Who are you, Rain Man?”

Saul was balanced on his toes. “I’m so sorry, Lacey, we tried to turn you around, but we just learned it an hour ago. Here’s something for you”–he handed her a folded hundred-dollar bill–”and don’t let the painting touch the walkway.”

“I’ll be a witness,” said the grinning taxi driver, implying there could be another tip due.

“I can’t even invite you in,” said Saul. Then he turned to the half-opened door. “Estelle! Wave hello to Lacey!”

Estelle poked her head out of an upstairs window. “Hello, Lacey. Saul’s insane!”

Or maybe he’s highly rational?

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