Mark Spelman, center, Gavan Soule, right, and Peter Whitney remove a “Love” sculpture from Robert Indiana’s home and pack it up in a crate for shipping in July. Indiana’s works were being removed in order to access and appraise the pieces he left behind for an estate hearing in Rockland Press Herald photo by Brianna Soukup

The estate of artist Robert Indiana is trying to halt reproduction of his works, including his iconic “LOVE” and “HOPE” images, arguing that the licensing agreements for those works ended when he died almost a year ago.

Notices were filed in a New York federal court terminating licensing agreements between the estate and both Michael McKenzie, whose American Image Art represented a segment of Indiana’s artwork late in the artist’s life, and Morgan Art Foundation and Simon Salama-Caro, Indiana’s agent and an adviser to Morgan, which owns the rights to Indiana’s “LOVE” image and has claimed responsibility for reviving Indiana’s career after he moved to Maine.

Both McKenzie and Morgan reject the idea that agreements have ended and vowed to fight that battle in court.

“They just lost the only ally they ever had. I am going to rip them apart. … I am done being a nice guy with them. They can all go to hell,” said McKenzie, who promoted Indiana’s images, including his “HOPE” design, created for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Artist Robert Indiana poses at his Vinalhaven studio in 2008 with “HOPE,” which he created for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Associated Press/Joel Page

The complex legal battle surrounding the estate of Indiana began the day before he died at his home on Vinalhaven, when the Morgan Art Foundation filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York accusing McKenzie and Jamie Thomas, Indiana’s caretaker, of fraud and elder abuse. Indiana also was named in the suit. In fall 2018, Morgan also sued the Indiana estate alleging breach of contract.

Indiana’s estate has filed counterclaims against Morgan, and in another court action Friday, the estate’s New York attorneys at Venable LLP asked permission of the judge to file an updated counterclaim, seeking relief relating to the terminated agreements and alleging breaches of fiduciary duties. The judge struck the letter, saying it should be filed in the second lawsuit that Morgan filed against the estate. Edward P. Boyle, an attorney from Venable, called the filing error a glitch and said the letter seeking permission to add counterclaims would be refiled by Monday.

Rockland attorney James Brannan, who is Indiana’s legal representative and is named as a defendant in the Morgan suit, said he and his lawyers now believe the licensing agreements among Indiana, Morgan and McKenzie expired with Indiana’s death.

“We’re giving them notice that we are terminating the agreements, and this requires the judge to let us amend our pleading down there (in New York),” he said. “We are hopeful the judge will do it. We are early enough in the case that I think we can.”

Friday’s legal flurry comes on the day when the arts community gathered in Rockland for a private memorial for Indiana nearly a year after his death on May 19, 2018, at age 89. Another event Friday at the Farnsworth Museum celebrated the recent reinstallation of Indiana’s “EAT” sculpture, made for the World’s Fair in New York in 1964, on the museum rooftop.

Morgan’s attorney, Luke Nikas, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, called the allegations in the counterclaim frivolous and said Morgan would fight the request to amend the counterclaim. He also said Morgan would enforce its agreements with Indiana’s estate, and said those agreements involve intellectual property that are in effect in perpetuity. “Legally speaking, we don’t see any possibility these agreements will be terminated,” he said.

McKenzie dared the estate to try. “I spent the last 11 years of my life keeping Indiana alive,” he said. “That friend is no longer a friend. I am going to take them apart, piece by piece – Brannan, Jamie, their attorney, one by one.”

He said the lawsuits and counterclaims suggest that Indiana was giving out licenses “to things he didn’t have the right to, to Simon, to myself and (others). Each person had rights that the other person owned. When three people think they own the same thing, that’s 100 percent on Robert Indiana,” McKenzie said. “The estate needs to stand up to the fact that Bob had total mismanagement and was a guy who was afraid of confrontation.”

In its counterclaim, the Indiana estate alleges that Morgan and Salama-Caro paid Indiana “only a small fraction” of what he was owed over the years and kept him in the dark about how much money they were earning from sales of his art. “Morgan was also supposed to pay Indiana his percentage within 30 days of each sale, yet never did,” the claim alleges. “Instead, once a year, Morgan sent Indiana a check accompanied by a single-line statement of a dollar amount that was ‘payable to Robert Indiana’ – without any explanation as to how the amount was calculated, what works Morgan had sold, to whom, at what price, and what expenses had been deducted.”

It also alleges Morgan and Salama-Caro produced works in Indiana’s name that were not authorized, created or approved by Indiana. It cites an example where Indiana had authorized Morgan to produce “LOVE” sculptures using pre-approved kinds of marble. “Ignoring these requirements, Morgan created and sold ‘LOVE’ sculptures made from other materials, such as travertine, granite, and malachite.”

Since Indiana’s death, the authenticity of artwork using his familiar stacked, block-letter design with words like “wine” and “brat” have been called into question, along with the originality of a series of prints attributed to Indiana employing the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Vinalhaven resident Chuck Clapham rides his bike past Robert Indiana’s Vinalhaven home, the former Odd Fellows Hall named Star of Hope, in 2018. Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Nikas, the attorney for Morgan, criticized the estate for spending money on legal action that should be spent preserving Indiana’s home on Vinalhaven, the Star of Hope, which the artist hoped to turn into a museum for his work. In a statement, he accused the estate’s representatives, “who had nothing to do with Indiana’s success and know virtually nothing about his art” of trying to “line their pockets with money that should instead be used to renovate Indiana’s beloved home and support Indiana’s nonprofit foundation.”

He also said Morgan paid Indiana millions of dollars over the years, and Salama-Caro “devoted nearly three decades promoting Indiana and his works, a relationship that started when Indiana’s market was negligible.”

In an interview, Nikas said the estate is “undermining Robert Indiana’s legacy, undermining the value of his artwork and they are not fixing his house. This is a sad but classic example of an elderly artist being taken advantage of by the last people who were around him when he passed.”

Brannan said Indiana’s estate is estimated at $77 million. It’s the largest estate on file in the history Knox County, according to courthouse records.

He also said the foundation is moving forward, but that efforts to restore or renovate Indiana’s Star of Hope on the island cannot proceed until the legal issues are resolved. Larry Sterrs, a longtime Maine businessman and banker, is the newly appointed chairman of Star of Hope Foundation.

Sterrs is the former chairman of the Good Will-Hinckley board and is credited with leading the effort to turn around the school after a financial crisis. He said he was asked to run the Star of Hope Foundation board by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which is overseeing the Indiana estate as it progresses through the probate process.

Indiana was clear in his intent to turn the Star of Hope into a museum, and that is the mission of the Star of Hope Foundation board, Sterrs said. The board has five members, including Brannan and Thomas, and Sterrs intends to expand the board to seven members “to include more independent directors with skills useful going forward.”

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