The Robert Indiana art fraud case turned toward resolution with the announcement of a new binding agreement between the late artist’s longtime representative, which sued the artist out of concern he was allowing fake artwork to be made in his name, and the Maine-based nonprofit that will carry forward his legacy.

The agreement, which was filed in federal court in New York on Monday, was negotiated by the Morgan Art Foundation, the Star of Hope Foundation and the Maine Attorney General’s Office, and signals a new united legal front in the ongoing litigation over the rights to Indiana’s artwork and the control of his legacy. While the agreement announced Monday could ultimately end the litigation between Morgan and Indiana’s estate, it leaves in place other elements of a complicated and increasingly bitter civil lawsuit, including allegations of elder abuse and art fraud.

One of the combatants left exposed in Monday’s announcement, art publisher Michael McKenzie, denounced the Star of Hope Foundation for aligning with Morgan in the legal dispute. “It smells bad,” he said. “That’s like saying, ‘I just made a deal with the devil. He said when I get to hell, he’s not going to have it that hot.’ ”

The Star of Hope Foundation, which takes its name from Indiana’s Victorian home on Vinalhaven, is not a party in the lawsuit but has become entangled because its work is tied to the outcome of the litigation and the final value of Indiana’s estate, estimated at $90 million. Indiana envisioned the foundation would operate the Star of Hope as a museum to his life and work. Maine Attorney General Aaron M. Frey was drawn into the case through the charitable-organization oversight duties of his office, and is named in a related legal matter, ongoing in federal court in Portland, involving McKenzie and the Indiana estate in a dispute over prior arbitration. That litigation is not affected by Monday’s development.

The home of the late artist Robert Indiana on Vinalhaven, photographed in 2018, is the namesake of the Star of Hope Foundation. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In a statement Monday night, Frey said, “I am pleased that the Star of Hope Foundation’s tireless efforts to honor the wishes of Robert Indiana are starting to come to fruition. … The Star of Hope’s progress in implementing Mr. Indiana’s wishes has been impeded by litigation filed against Mr. Indiana and others just before his death. The settlement announced today between the foundation and the Morgan Art Foundation, the plaintiff in the litigation, removes a major roadblock and is a significant step in the right direction of making Mr. Indiana’s vision a reality. It is my hope that this first step will lead to the swift resolution of the remaining issues so the estate can be brought to closure and the foundation fully funded and operational.”

Larry Sterrs, chairman of the Star of Hope Foundation, did not return a message asking to discuss the development.

The Morgan Art Foundation, a for-profit company that has represented Indiana’s work since the 1990s and owns the rights to his most famous work, “LOVE,” and many others, sued Indiana for breach of contract and accused McKenzie and the artist’s caretaker, Jamie Thomas, of working together to isolate Indiana and produce artwork that he did not authorize. The suit was filed on May 18, 2018, the day before Indiana died. With the artist’s death, the Indiana estate became a defendant in Morgan’s suit.

Indiana estate attorney James Brannan of Rockland was not aware that an agreement had been reached among Morgan, the Star of Hope Foundation and the Maine attorney general until informed by a newspaper reporter, and said, “I cannot agree to any settlement until I have seen it and consider it to be in the best interests of the estate and Bob’s legacy.”

Brannan has faced criticism for his handling of the case from the outset, most recently for mounting legal bills, which he said were “in the vicinity” of $6 million. A year ago, the attorney for Morgan, Luke Nikas, asked Frey to intervene because he said Brannan was acting recklessly by turning down a settlement worth $10 million and instead choosing to continue the legal fight. Early on, Brannan was dismissed as being insensitive to Indiana’s artistic legacy when he sold paintings from Indiana’s private collection, including one by his close friend Ellsworth Kelly, to raise money to pay legal bills and related costs.

Indiana died with about $5 million in his bank account, which now is empty, Nikas said. With the agreement between Morgan and the Star of Hope Foundation in place, Nikas said Brannan has no say in the matter anymore. “The estate is out of the picture and done,” he said in an interview.

Brannan disagreed, and said he was preparing to move forward with plans to depose key figures in the case this week. He suggested the timing of agreement between Morgan and the Star of Hope Foundation was meant to thwart him from following through with those depositions. “I will just say the depositions are proceeding and we’ve got about three or four left and and we are going to get this before a judge and jury. … We are going forward to a trial,” Brannan said.

Nikas announced the agreement in a form of a motion, filed Monday night by his partner Maaren Shah, that asks the court to dismiss all litigation between Morgan and the estate. Morgan began working with Indiana in the 1990s after its art consultant, Simon Salama-Caro, befriended and recruited Indiana in exchange for helping the artist settle a debt with the Internal Revenue Service.

In a statement, Nikas said, “This agreement should bring to an end James Brannan’s and the estate’s misguided and wasteful litigation. We are thrilled Simon Salama-Caro and Morgan Art Foundation, which have been loyal Robert Indiana patrons for three decades, will continue their work promoting and presenting the Indiana legacy. We also look forward to our productive collaboration with the Star of Hope Foundation.”


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