The island home of pop artist Robert Indiana, who was 80 when he was photographed in May 2009 standing on his porch in Vinalhaven, is packed with art and artifacts from his life and career, including valuable paintings and prints, notebooks and the largest archive of printed material about Indiana, who died Saturday at the age of 89. Associated Press/Pat Wellenbach

A federal lawsuit paints a bleak picture of acclaimed artist Robert Indiana’s final years on a Maine island, isolated from friends and supporters and allegedly cut off from outside contact by a local fisherman who hijacked the artist’s email account and turned away curators and gallery directors.

And on Tuesday, an attorney representing the art foundation that filed the lawsuit said Indiana’s death at age 89 on Saturday – a day after the suit was filed – should be investigated to rule out anything suspicious. He said the Morgan Art Foundation is asking local authorities for an inquiry into Indiana’s death, has alerted federal authorities to the value of artwork at Indiana’s Vinalhaven home and is seeking help to ensure its protection.

“The lawsuit was filed on Friday, and he died the next day,” said Luke Nikas, an attorney with the New York firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. “It’s highly concerning to us the day after (the suit was filed), he was found dead. We are pushing for a full investigation.”

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday it is not investigating his death as suspicious. Indiana’s attorney, James Brannan of Rockland, said the artist – best known for his widely reproduced “LOVE” sculpture and image from the 1960s – died at his home of respiratory failure at 5:45 p.m. Saturday.

The lawsuit accuses Vinalhaven resident Jamie L. Thomas and Michael McKenzie, a New York art publisher with a long history on Vinalhaven through his association with Indiana, of multiple counts of trademark and copyright infringement, alleging they created fraudulent artwork under Indiana’s name, including a series of prints that were displayed at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston in 2016.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York by the art foundation, which has represented Indiana since the late 1990s. It seeks unspecified monetary damages, but “the first and most important thing is protecting his legacy to stop proliferation of inauthentic works. It’s important to us that collectors and the market are confident in what they buy,” Nikas said.

He estimated monetary damages to be “in the tens of millions,” and said he is seeking a jury trial.

Artist Robert Indiana appears in 2013 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in front of the “LOVE” image that made him famous. Associated Press/Lauren Casselberry

The lawsuit says Thomas isolated Indiana from his friends and supporters in the art world and cut off outside contact by controlling the artist’s email account and turning away curators and gallery directors who trekked to Vinalhaven in hopes of an audience with the aging icon of American art. The “LOVE” sculpture was an expression of the hope and desire of a generation to choose love over war. Indiana, who incorporated type and graphic design sensibilities in his artwork, was in declining health for several years.

Thomas is described in the federal lawsuit alleging fraud and exploitation as “a fisherman from Maine with no art expertise that Indiana had employed to run errands and do work around the house.”

ART PUBLISHER TO MAKE HIS OWN CHARGES

Reached by phone Tuesday afternoon, McKenzie declined to discuss details of the lawsuit. “I am about to meet with my attorney. I am just getting up to speed. I just heard about it Monday,” he said of the lawsuit, although he discussed it Friday with Reuters, dismissing its core contention and promising a strong countersuit. Of Indiana’s health, he told Reuters on Friday, “Bob is quite sharp. … There are times when he’s off, which is expected, but there are times he is as sharp as he’s ever been. His ability to understand what’s what and why, and make good decisions – he’s clear about what he wants and doesn’t want.”

In his phone call with the Press Herald, McKenzie promised a response soon and said it will include “a lot of denials and a bunch of other charges.” He called Morgan and the art foundation’s associates “bad people. They haven’t paid Bob in seven years. They had him under some reign of terror.”

Nikas said the Morgan foundation has paid Indiana during that time and has the accounting to prove it.

Neither Thomas nor his attorney responded to voice mail messages left Tuesday. Brannan, Indiana’s attorney, declined to discuss the lawsuit, saying, “I don’t want to comment on the lawsuit yet. Now is not the time.”

Indiana also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as is McKenzie’s company, America Image Art.

Nikas said Indiana was bedridden and infirm, and his death was not unexpected. He is asking for an investigation into his death to ensure there was no foul play. He said he would ask the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to investigate Indiana’s death as a case of elder abuse, and he noted that a friend of Indiana’s reported concerns to the department in March.

A department spokesperson declined to comment Tuesday, citing confidentiality.

ANNOUNCEMENT SOON ON INDIANA’S ESTATE

The circumstances of Indiana’s death raise questions about the vulnerabilities of older artists and their legacies, and the suit exposes deep rifts among Indiana’s dealers and the various commercial interests vying for a stake in his art and image. Also lingering over his death and the intrigue of the lawsuit are questions about what will happen with Indiana’s estate and his Vinalhaven home, a former Odd Fellows Hall known as the Star of Hope.

The building is packed with art and artifacts from Indiana’s life and career, including valuable paintings and prints, notebooks and the largest archive of printed material about the artist.

Brannan said an announcement would be coming soon about Indiana’s estate. “There will be much more to come on that in the coming days,” he said. He also said no art has been removed from the house “and nothing has changed at the Star of Hope. Nothing at all.”

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U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she hopes a Maine museum preserves the Star of Hope. “There has been some talk that the house would make a fantastic museum. It reflected a very complicated man,” Pingree said in a phone interview.

Indiana designed a campaign poster for Pingree when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002. She called his death “very sad. I think a lot of Mainers didn’t even know he lived in Maine, but he’s been here a long time, and he felt strongly about his affinity for Maine.”

‘EXPLOITED … IN THE TWILIGHT OF HIS LIFE’

Indiana moved to Maine from New York in 1978. Over 53 pages, the lawsuit describes the sad circumstances of the final few years of those four decades.

According to the suit, Indiana’s relationship with the Morgan Art Foundation and its adviser, Simon Salama-Caro and his son, Marc, soured when McKenzie and Thomas began playing larger roles in Indiana’s personal and professional life. The suit says Indiana assigned power-of-attorney privileges to Thomas in May 2016.

The suit alleges, “Defendants have isolated and exploited Indiana in his most vulnerable state in the twilight of his life. They have lined their pockets at the expense of innocent collectors by creating and selling unauthorized works and have largely succeeded in passing off these forged works as Indiana originals. They have confused and damaged Indiana’s market and attempted to disparage and undermine the business of Morgan Art Foundation and the Salama-Caro family to prevent the scheme from being exposed.”

The lawsuit alleges that Thomas took over Indiana’s email account and sent profanity-laced emails under Indiana’s name, warning people to stay away. One email, from May 2014 with the subject line “New Way of Doing Things” was signed “Staff, Robert Indiana Estate.”

It read, “Message, going out to all concerned. Mr. Robert Indiana is not feeling up to snuff these days. [S]o from now on, if persons want to see Bob in person for ANY reason, one must have prior permission. In other words, if you call or email that you are on your way to see Mr. Indiana, [i]t will be a wasted trip if you have not been told personally that it is fine to come. To[o] many people have just come without prior permission. Thank you for respecting his privacy.”

At Bates College in Lewiston, professor Lisa Maurizio views prints at a Robert Indiana exhibit in 2016. A lawsuit says an art historian and Indiana scholar who saw the show called the prints “ghosts of the real thing.” Staff photo by Joel Page

The suit further alleges that four days before, Thomas sent another warning to a Salama-Caro family member, “(expletive) YOU DO NOT COME BACK YOU ARE NOT WELCOME. YOU (expletive) (expletive).” According to the suit, Thomas wrote again under Indiana’s name five minutes later, “DO you speak English. I told you to leave. (expletive) someone else. You are a crook.”

When visitors sought Indiana for face-to-face meetings, they were turned away. This became the case more often after the death of Valerie Morton, Indiana’s longtime assistant and co-executor of Indiana’s will, midway through 2015. The suit details several instances of art historians, gallery directors and longtime friends trying to visit and being told by Thomas, either on the spot or in advance, that “Bob is not up for many visits right now.” One art historian forwarded Thomas’ message to Marc Salama-Caro, commenting, “Big surprise. I wonder whether he even showed Bob my message.”

ACCUSATIONS OF FORGED INDIANA WORKS

Robert Indiana borrowed lyrics from the Bob Dylan song “Like a Rolling Stone” for this silkscreen displayed at Bates College in 2016. Courtesy of Bates College Museum of Art

The suit blames McKenzie and his company, American Image Art, for hurting the value and reputation of Indiana’s art. It claims that Salama-Caro and Morgan successfully rebuilt Indiana’s image from the time they began associating with him in the late 1990s, and by 2008, “everything was going smoothly for Indiana. His market was rejuvenated; the art world was again recognizing the quality of his works,” the suit says. “That all would begin to change when American Image and McKenzie arrived on the scene.”

Indiana had some successes, including a 2013 retrospective, “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But as Thomas isolated and manipulated Indiana, according to the suit, American Image and McKenzie “continued to pump out forged works. The market continued to fall as a result, and collectors continued expressing concern about McKenzie.”

The suit contends that Indiana “had no hand” in creating the “HOPE” prints and image that were associated with Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and says the so-called Dylan works – created in 2016 and depicting original Indiana prints with the lyrics of Bob Dylan – violated Morgan’s licensing agreement and infringed on its trademark rights.

CRITICISM OF BATES MUSEUM’S EXHIBITION

The suit says Indiana had confessed to Marc Salama-Caro during a rare private meeting that McKenzie “was a loose cannon, out of control” and that Indiana was afraid of him. Indiana said McKenzie “does things without even asking.” McKenzie was creating the works “and then forcing them on Indiana through emotional abuse and intimidation,” the suit contends.

It also says that the fakes were obvious, and cites an unnamed “renowned American art historian and longtime Indiana scholar” who visited the Bates Museum exhibition in June 2016 and wrote to Marc Salama-Caro, “I stopped at the Bates College Museum of Art to see the ‘Indiana’ show they have just opened. It’s all Michael McKenzie, including the ‘school of’ Alphabet paintings we saw in the lower studio last summer. Mostly ghastly and embarrassing stuff, a few good ideas but all ghosts of the real thing … a shame.”

Dan Mills, the Bates museum’s director, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the museum arranged “Robert Indiana: Now and Then” through Landau Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles, “an established art presenter,” and noted the museum’s “long history with Mr. Indiana and his work” in its permanent collection.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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