A former attorney for late artist Robert Indiana is asking the court to remove his artwork from the hands of his estate, out of concern that more of the collection will be sold and never enjoyed by the public, as the artist intended.

Ronald Spencer, who was fired in 2016 and replaced by a Rockland attorney now under scrutiny for his legal fees and handling of the late artist’s estate, has written a personal letter to a Knox County probate judge urging Indiana’s artwork be transferred to the foundation Indiana created to honor his life and legacy.

Spencer, who represented Indiana for a decade until James Brannan of Rockland took over the artist’s legal affairs, worries key pieces of Indiana’s artistic legacy are at risk because Brannan offered 19 of them as collateral for a $5 million bank loan he secured to help pay the estate’s legal fees. The loan originated Sept. 18, 2020, and has a one-year term, meaning it is due in full this fall. If it’s not paid, some of Indiana’s most important and personal paintings, including “Mother and Father” and “The Eighth American Dream,” are in play.

“There are no assurances that the Estate will be able to pay the loan this September without selling more art,” Spencer wrote to Judge Carol R. Emery in an emailed letter dated Feb. 14. “Bob’s gift of art to the people of Maine is at risk.”

Brannan’s attorney dismissed Spencer’s concerns as “misplaced,” and said Spencer was “clueless” about the estate’s affairs.

Indiana died at his home on Vinalhaven island in May 2018 at age 89. Brannan was named Indiana’s personal representative in the days after his death. Best known for creating “LOVE” in the 1960s, Indiana was a pre-eminent figure in American art. At the time of his death, he became embroiled in a civil lawsuit, filed by his one of his dealers, alleging he had been isolated in his final years at his island home, the Star of Hope Lodge, as artwork was made under his name without his approval. The original suit has spawned others, and settlement talks are ongoing.

Brannan has been criticized for selling work from Indiana’s private collection. Two years ago, he sold paintings by Ed Ruscha and Ellsworth Kelly for a total of $5 million to pay legal fees, and he was about to auction an Indiana sculpture when the Maine Attorney General’s Office intervened in September, seeking supervisor authority to prevent him from selling more work. In January, Emery signed an order prohibiting the sale of Indiana’s art without her review, and also ruled the AG’s office may demand detailed accounting of the estate’s fees, including $8.5 million in legal bills.

As of January, Brannan had personally billed the estate $1.45 million and been paid $1 million, according to court documents.

In his letter, Spencer said Emery’s January order wasn’t enough. “The Executor must be directed to immediately distribute Bob’s art to the Foundation,” he wrote. “I understand that your … order prohibits any sale of pledged art without your further order, but pledging of Bob’s art under these circumstances was a huge risk for the art and a serious step closer to a bank foreclosure sale, and a final and irreparable departure of the art from Maine.”

Spencer, who lives in New York, received a brief email from Indiana in 2016 informing him he had been fired. He followed up to ask why, but never got an answer. He has no legal standing in the probate proceeding. He said he wrote the letter out of concern for Indiana’s legacy, as his former attorney of a decade who worked with Indiana to establish the Star of Hope Foundation. “He intended that this Foundation take ownership of all his important works of art, as well as his Vinalhaven residence, Star of Hope. The mission of the Foundation was to protect his artistic legacy, to make the Star of Hope Foundation and residence an important art and study center, and to gift this unique cultural asset to the people of Maine and his beloved Vinalhaven,” he wrote.

Spencer said he expressed his concerns in a Feb. 5 phone call with representatives of the Maine AG’s office. They suggested he write the letter, Spencer told judge Emery, explaining why he reached out to her. Spencer previously complained to the attorney general that Indiana had signed his final will naming Brannan as his personal representative under undue influence. Brannan has denied that accusation, and it is unclear if the AG’s office investigated Spencer’s concerns.

Representatives of the AG’s office and the Knox County Probate Court did not respond to messages Tuesday. Brannan’s lawyer, Sigmund Schutz of Portland, said in a statement, “Mr. Spencer is clueless about what the Estate has been up to, so it’s not surprising that his concerns are misplaced. The Estate will continue to advance Indiana’s legacy, bring the litigation to a successful conclusion, and distribute assets in accordance with Maine law.”

Previously, Schutz has said the estate had enough money to pay its legal bills through April.

Of concern to Spencer and Indiana’s other art-world friends is what happens after April, even if the civil suit is settled by then or mostly resolved. The balance of the $5 million bank loan will have to be repaid or rolled over in the fall, and the estate will still have bills to pay, legal and otherwise, said Kathleen Rogers of Ellsworth, Indiana’s former publicist. Even if the repayment of the loan is negotiated in the settlement, Rogers said she fears it’s “inevitable” that some of Indiana’s art will have to be sold.

“Who will make that decision,” she asked in an email, expressing distrust in all the parties involved and her lack of confidence in their expertise. “Among the 19 pledged works, there are three – ‘Mother and Father,’ ‘The Eighth American Dream’ along with an (edition of) ‘The Electric EAT,’ that like the Ruscha and the Kelly that were sold early on, were and are absolutely critical to the collection. Without a meaningful collection, there is no museum.”

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