ROCKLAND — There were gasps in the courtroom Wednesday when a witness testifying in a probate hearing about the estate of artist Robert Indiana said the late artist gave his caretaker a major oil painting from his “Robert Indiana Decade: Autoportrait” series, a painting possibly worth millions of dollars.

“Oh my God,” mouthed Farnsworth Art Museum chief curator Michael Komanecky, who attended Wednesday’s hearing as a spectator.

Later, during a break in the proceedings, he said, “That’s quite a gift. That would have a very high value in the market today.”

Wednesday’s hearing in Knox County Probate Court brought together many of the principal figures in the saga of Indiana, who died May 19 at the age of 89 at his Vinalhaven home, known as the Star of Hope. He would have turned 90 on Thursday.

A celebrated artist best known for his “LOVE” design that became a symbol of hope for a generation, Indiana died an inglorious death that has become what his lawyer, James Brannan of Rockland, called a “sad saga. It’s turned into a sad case.”

The day before he died, the artist and some of his associates were named in a federal lawsuit filed by an art foundation that did business with Indiana, alleging copyright infringement, fraud and elder abuse. That trial is pending in New York.

The timing of the lawsuit and Indiana’s death raised questions, and an FBI agent investigating possible art fraud requested an autopsy. The state medical examiner’s office said his death was not suspicious though the official cause of death is “undetermined.”

ESTATE VALUED AT $60 MILLION

The artist Robert Indiana, who would have turned 90 on Thursday, died May 19 at the at his Vinalhaven home. A probate hearing was held Wednesday on the assets of his estate. Staff Photo by John Ewing

Wednesday’s hearing was requested by Brannan, the personal representative of Indiana’s estate. Brannan is trying to determine if any of Indiana’s assets – such as artworks or unaccounted sales – are owed to the estate, which is currently valued at about $60 million.

Many of the key players involved in the lawsuit attended Wednesday’s hearing. Among those testifying was Indiana’s longtime caretaker, Jamie Thomas, who in addition to receiving 118 pieces of art from Indiana as gifts, was paid nearly $500,000 in the final two years of the artist’s life and made cash withdrawals from Indiana’s bank accounts totaling $615,000 during the same period, from April 2016 until Indiana died in May.

Thomas testified those were all made at the request of Indiana.

He had the power of attorney for Indiana, and Indiana’s will stipulates that proceeds from his estate be used to restore the Star of Hope and open it as a museum. The will also says that Thomas will be the executive director of the museum.

Also testifying were Indiana’s agent, Simon Salama-Caro; his dealer, Michael McKenzie; and Marc Salama-Caro, son of Simon, who was working with Indiana on a sculpture project when the artist died.

Simon Salama-Caro also advised the Morgan Art Foundation, which served as a financial patron for Indiana and his art. The Morgan Art Foundation initiated the federal lawsuit against McKenzie and Thomas, alleging the pair isolated Indiana from his longtime friends and professional associates and exploited his name and legacy by creating fakes and selling them for millions of dollars.

It was Marc Salama-Caro – under questioning from Margaret Minister, the attorney representing Brannan and the estate – who revealed that among Indiana’s gifts to Thomas was a painting from the “Decade: Autoportrait” series, painted in 1971 and given to Thomas in July 2015.

The series is a collection of symbolic self-portraits, oil on canvas, representing meditations on life. A painting from the series sold for about $1.1 million in 2016.

COLLECTED, IDENTIFIED PIECES OF ART

Wednesday’s most colorful witness was McKenzie, the dealer who worked with Indiana through his business American Image Art. McKenzie said he paid Indiana $1 million a year, and Indiana insisted that McKenzie deliver the check in person because he “didn’t trust the people who worked for him.” Indiana also insisted on a single check for $1 million instead of two checks for $500,000 because he thought it was “sexy” to get a million-dollar check.

He also testified that Indiana described Thomas as his “best friend.” When questioned if he knew if Indiana ever gave Thomas anything of value, McKenzie answered, “Never.”

When asked if Indiana gave him anything of value, he said, “He gave me coffee.”

Before the hearing, McKenzie returned 66 pieces of art to the estate. When Minister asked McKenzie if he possessed any additional art belonging to Indiana or his estate, he tersely answered, “No. … We think we’ve gotten everything we can get.”

Brannan said he was pleased with Wednesday’s hearing. “As a result of this proceeding, we’ve collected about 66 new pieces of art for the estate, and we know of another 118 pieces that Jamie Thomas identified as gifts,” he said.

Brannan supervised the removal of art from Indiana’s home and other buildings on Vinalhaven. That process turned up about 600 pieces of art, as well as $100,000 in cash. Wednesday’s hearing also turned up additional leads about other Indiana art works owned by the estate that may be in galleries in the United States and overseas. Brannan said it was likely the estate would ask to call more witnesses.

AG’S OFFICE MONITORING ESTATE

Simon Salama-Caro defended his handling of Indiana’s accounts, testifying that early in his relationship with the artist, in the late 1990s, he gave Indiana detailed accounting and statements about all of their business transactions. That practice stopped, he said, because Indiana complained about the paperwork. “He just wanted to know how much he was due and if it was paid,” he said.

He also testified that he was unable to produce a copy of an amendment to an agreement conveying the Morgan Art Foundation copyrights to Indiana’s work from 1960 to 1984.

“Where is it?” Minister asked.

“That’s a good question,” Salama-Caro replied. “We are looking for it.”

He suggested it might be in the Geneva offices of Morgan’s auditors – “we have asked … and they are looking for it” – and also said the Indiana estate should have a copy.

Wednesday’s hearing was held on a petition by Brannan to have the court order Thomas, the Morgan Art Foundation, McKenzie and American Image to provide documentation on any assets they have that might belong to the estate, including contracts for royalties.

The Attorney General’s Office is monitoring the disposition of the estate because of its size and because a large portion is earmarked for a charity.

Attorneys representing Thomas, Morgan and the Salama-Caros had asked that the hearing be closed to the public. McKenzie and his legal team wanted it open.

Komanecky, the Farnsworth curator, attended the hearing to monitor the situation and any progress toward resolution of issues raised in probate court in Rockland or federal court in New York.

“I am here like everyone else to understand more of what happened and what is happening with Robert Indiana’s estate and the creation of his foundation. I am here because the Farnsworth remains committed to supporting in any way it can Bob’s wishes for the future of his estate and all that’s in it.”

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

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