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

The foundation that represents the artwork of Robert Indiana, including his iconic “LOVE” image, is asking the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate the late artist’s estate, alleging it has mismanaged its finances and Indiana’s legacy.

Luke Nikas, a lawyer for the Morgan Art Foundation, a for-profit organization that has represented Indiana and his artwork since 1999, sent a scathing letter to Assistant Attorney General Linda Conti, accusing the Indiana estate of “reckless conduct” for selling artwork from Indiana’s private collection to raise money for his legal bills and for turning down a potential settlement worth $10 million.

“We are calling on the attorney general to look at what is being done and we are respectfully requesting that the Attorney General’s Office step in to protect the Star of Hope Foundation,” Nikas said in an interview.

Robert Indiana poses at his studio in Vinalhaven in 2009. Associated Press/Joel Page

The Star of Hope Foundation formed after Indiana’s death in May 2018 to restore his home on Vinalhaven Island and convert it into a museum to honor the artist and his work. Conti oversees the division of consumer protection, which has jurisdiction over charities and nonprofit entities. She did not return a phone call or respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday. Previously, she has said that her office is monitoring the foundation closely to ensure it is being run properly, and urged both parties to resolve their legal issues as soon as possible.

Nikas’ letter, sent Tuesday afternoon, opens up a new front in the high-profile legal dispute over the rights to Indiana’s artwork and the control of his legacy. Nikas contends the estate rejected a settlement offer last year that would have ended the dispute and given the foundation $5 million to renovate Indiana’s home and enough money to ensure future funding of the foundation. Nikas estimated Morgan’s settlement offer, made last year, would have been worth as much as $10 million for the Star of Hope Foundation.

The Robert Indiana sculpture “LOVE” in John F. Kennedy Plaza, commonly known as Love Park, in Philadelphia. Associated Press/Matt Rourke

Instead, the estate filed a counter suit against Morgan and its advisers, alleging Morgan underpaid Indiana for years and provided improper accounting. A federal judge rejected most of the estate’s claims in July. Oral arguments over Morgan’s motion to dismiss the estate’s claim that rights to Indiana’s artwork reverted to the estate upon Indiana’s death are scheduled for Aug. 14 in a New York City courtroom. Morgan signed a series of contracts with Indiana beginning in 1999 that it says gives it the exclusive right to represent and reproduce Indiana’s artwork, including images involving his famous “LOVE” design, in perpetuity. Indiana’s estate contends ownership of those rights reverted to the estate when Indiana died.

Nikas said the settlement offer is off the table.

“We alert you to these developments because the legacy of one of Maine’s most successful artists is being threatened,” Nikas wrote to Conti in a letter dated Aug. 6. “We also bring these developments to your attention because the estate’s waste and mismanagement will severely harm a nonprofit regulated by your office. These are fiduciary funds, designated for a Maine charity. The individuals controlling Indiana’s estate are legally obligated to treat them as such – not waste money on legal fees to pursue meritless cases.”

Indiana died May 19, 2018, the day after Morgan Art Foundation sued him in federal court for breach of contract and accused another of Indiana’s art dealers, Michael McKenzie, and Indiana’s caretaker, Jamie Thomas, of fraud and elder abuse. Indiana was named in the suit, accused of breach of contract for his dealings with McKenzie. Last fall, Morgan filed a suit against the estate’s attorney, James Brannan of Rockland, alleging breach of contract.

The estate also sued Morgan, and Thomas has filed a legal claim against the estate as well. Indiana’s estate is estimated to be worth about $77 million and is the largest on file in Knox County.

In his letter to Conti, Nikas excoriated the estate for selling two paintings from Indiana’s private collection to raise money to pay its legal bills. In November, it sold at auction “Orange Blue,” an oil painting by Ellsworth Kelly from 1957, and “Ruby,” an oil by Ed Ruscha from 1968, raising approximately $5 million. “Indiana had repeatedly said he never wanted to sell those works, and the estate would have obtained significantly better prices had it handled the sales appropriately,” Nikas wrote. “Unfortunately, the money from these sales will benefit lawyers, rather than artists, scholars and members of the public who should be benefiting from the Star of Hope Foundation’s activities.”

The Morgan lawyer saved his harshest language for Brannan, accusing him of “reckless decisions” that have cost the estate millions of dollars. “They reflect an abject lack of knowledge about the practical consequences in the art world that critiques, exhibits and acquires Indiana’s works,” Nikas wrote.

In an emailed statement, Brannan wrote, “I do not need a master’s degree in fine arts to recognize the art of exploitation and underhanded dealings, or the statements of a desperate plaintiff’s attorney. I have terminated all of Robert Indiana’s agreements with the Morgan Art Foundation. The estate looks forward to doing business with a reputable fabricator and agent.”

This is the second time Nikas has written to Conti expressing concern about the conduct of the Indiana estate. He sent another letter last September.

Larry Sterrs, who became chairman of the Star of Hope Foundation in January, said Wednesday that he has not been party to any settlement discussions and noted that the Star of Hope Foundation is not involved in the litigation, though its resources are tied to the outcome of the legal proceedings. Sterrs urged a quick resolution to the legal matters. “The one thing I will say, it’s obvious that the litigation over the estate is troublesome and certainly not beneficial to the parties involved or the foundation. I think everybody would like to see a quick resolution of it. That is the foundation’s perspective,” he said.

He also said the Star of Hope Foundation has been doing work that the Morgan Art Foundation may not be aware of, and he hopes to announce in the next week to 10 days “a couple of significant projects that we are working on and working through” involving community engagement on Vinalhaven and ongoing maintenance at Indiana’s residence. Sterrs reiterated his pledge for transparency and goodwill, which he has promised since becoming chairman of the foundation.

“In the context of everything going on, my goal is to shift the lens away from conflict and litigation and focus more on progress and cooperation,” he said.

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