Art

Robert Indiana’s estate tries to block artist’s reproductions

Artist Robert Indiana in 2013.
Lauren Casselberry/Associated Press/file
Artist Robert Indiana in 2013.

The estate of Robert Indiana, one of America’s most celebrated artists, is seeking to block continued reproductions of some of his most famous work.

An attorney representing the estate of the late Maine artist filed notices Friday in New York federal court terminating agreements with two longtime Indiana associates, preventing them from reproducing works including prints and sculptures of the word “LOVE,” an Indiana creation that is among the most familiar works of art of the 20th century.

Maine attorney James Brannan said the agreements with Indiana’s longtime agent, Morgan Art Foundation, and Michael McKenzie, whose company, American Image Art, printed some of Indiana’s work dating back decades, ended with the artist’s death a year ago.

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“As the representative of [Indiana’s] estate, I have the official function to protect his assets and collect money that rightfully belongs to the estate,” Brannan said in a statement. “I also owe Bob another duty: I promised him that I would protect his artistic legacy. I take these responsibilities very seriously.”

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Friday’s court action is the latest in an ongoing legal battle over Indiana’s estate, which is valued at more than $70 million. The artist, who lived and worked in semiseclusion on Vinalhaven, an island off the Maine coast, for four decades, died last May at the age of 89. The day before his death, Morgan Art Foundation filed a lawsuit claiming that Jamie Thomas, a Vinalhaven resident who had been the artist’s caretaker during the last two years of his life, had conspired with McKenzie to produce — and profit from — bogus work attributed to Indiana. Thomas had been named in Indiana’s will to lead a foundation responsible for overseeing his art collection and the conversion of the Star of Hope, the name of Indiana’s ramshackle island home, into a museum.

In court filings, Thomas and McKenzie have both denied Morgan’s claims.

Responding to the estate’s filing on Friday, Morgan called it “frivolous” and said its longstanding agreement with Indiana is binding. It plans to contest the estate’s claim in court.

“Morgan Art Foundation entered into binding contracts with Robert Indiana and spent a fortune funding Robert Indiana’s artistic creations when no one else would. It has paid Indiana millions of dollars,” said Luke Nikas, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. “The estate’s false claims revise well-documented history so that the estate’s representatives — who had nothing to do with Indiana’s success and know virtually nothing about his art — can try to line their pockets with money that should instead be used to renovate Indiana’s beloved home and support Indiana’s nonprofit foundation.”

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Repeated attempts by The Boston Globe to reach McKenzie, who had worked off and on with Indiana for years and promoted the artist’s “HOPE” prints and sculptures during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, were unsuccessful. But McKenzie told the Portland Press Herald that he would fight the estate’s move. “They just lost the only ally they ever had. I am going to rip them apart,” the newspaper quoted McKenzie as saying. “I am done being a nice guy with them. They can all go to hell.”

Indiana had been in failing health, but an autopsy for the artist, who left no survivors, did not determine a cause of death. The medical examiner found evidence of “severe coronary artery disease . . . the complications of which are the most likely cause of his death.” Indiana also, inexplicably, had a small quantity of isopropanol, or rubbing alcohol, in his stomach. A spokesman for the Maine medical examiner’s office stated that the death was not suspicious.

Morgan’s lawsuit against Thomas, McKenzie, and the estate is expected to go to trial in the fall.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of the Star of Hope Foundation, which will oversee the proposed transformation of Indiana’s home into a museum housing his art, is taking shape.

Lawrence Sterrs, the chief executive of Camden National Corp. and Camden National Bank, has been asked by the Maine attorney general’s Office to serve as the board chairman. He’ll serve alongside Brannan, Thomas, Vinalhaven realtor and seventh-generation islander Kristine Davidson, and Patricia King, former associate director of the Colby College Museum of Art. Two more people are expected to be named soon.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Shanahan@Globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan