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State AG questions legal fees spent over artist's $90 million estate

Probate court to hear arguments Jan. 13 on whether personal representative needs to provide full accounting
By Stephen Betts | Jan 06, 2021
Star of Hope on Vinalhaven.

Rockland — The estate of world-renowned artist Robert Indiana has incurred more than $8.5 million in legal and associated fees since his death in May 2018. The Maine Attorney General's Office has voiced concern that this is threatening the Foundation the late Vinalhaven man envisioned.

"The Estate has little to no cash and has been selling valuable works of Mr. Indiana's art to pay those fees. The Attorney General remains concerned that the very existence of the Foundation is threatened by the liquidation of Estate assets and therefore again urges close review of all fees to ensure that only those fees that are strictly necessary and reasonable are allowed to deplete Estate assets meant for charity," stated a Jan. 4 motion, filed in Knox County Probate Court by Assistant Attorney General Linda Conti.

The attorney for attorney James Brannan of Rockland, who is the personal representative for Indiana's estate, maintains the attorneys' fees have been reasonable and proportional given the legal complexity of the legal proceedings.

Attorney Sigmund Schutz of Portland, who represents personal representative Brannan, said he disagrees with the Attorney General's position that there is no return to the legal fees being spent.

Schutz said the value of art recovered through the personal representatives efforts have already exceeded the amount of legal expenses.

"This is also to decide who controls Robert Indiana's legacy which includes the iconic 'Love' and 'Hope.' They are priceless," Schutz said.

Indiana's will — which he signed in May 2016 — left nearly his entire estate to support the not-for-profit foundation Star of Hope Inc., which will turn his home and studio into a museum.

The estate has been valued at about $90 million.

A Dec. 3 letter from attorney Seth Brewster who represents the foundation stated that through mid-October 2020, the estate already paid more than $7.2 million in legal fees for various lawsuits that were filed against the estate and by the estate.

In addition, Brewster said Brannan has personally billed the estate for $1.45 million of which $750,000 has already been paid.

Brewster voiced support for the Attorney General's request for the probate court to review the expenses to see if they have been reasonable.

In a competing motion filed with the probate court, Schutz argued that the Attorney General's office does not have the legal authority to order a review of expenses.

"The Attorney General's oversight authority over charities does not extend to estates  just because a charity is named as a beneficiary," he argued.

As an alternative, he asked that the review of expenses be done once the outstanding lawsuits are settled, so the review and accounting does not have to be performed twice.

A telephone conference among all the parties involved in the case was held Jan. 6. An online hearing will be held Wednesday, Jan. 13, on the AG's request for Brannan to provide a full accounting of money spent by the estate.

The Attorney General initially asked for a review back in January 2020 but withdrew the request when it appeared that the various lawsuits were going to be settled. At that time, less than $4 million in fees were paid.

The AG's Office maintains it has standing in the case because it has authority to oversee charities such as the art foundation.

"The significant public interest at stake in this case is not only preserving a Maine artist's legacy, but also reassuring the public that gifts to charities will be enforced and thus to encourage future gifts to charities," Conti said in her Jan. 4 motion.

In September 2020, the foundation asked that the estate's administration be supervised to prevent further sales of art work. According to the AG's motion, Brannan agreed in November not to sell any further artwork without consulting the foundation, or with court approval, but later that month the estate obtained a $5 million loan using additional artwork as collateral.

Indiana died May 19, 2018, at the age of 89 from heart problems at his home named Star of Hope on the Penobscot Bay island of Vinalhaven.

The estate became mired in lawsuits even before Indiana's death. A federal lawsuit filed by the Morgan Art Foundation in New York May 18, 2018 — the day before Indiana died — accused Indiana's former caretaker Jamie L. Thomas and Michael McKenzie of American Image Art of isolating and exploiting Indiana, forging his art and exhibiting some of the forgery in museums. They have denied those claims. Those cases are unresolved.

Schutz noted in his filing that the complex litigation in New York with Morgan Art has generated most of the estate's legal expenses, but that is nearing a final resolution. A lawsuit between Thomas and the estate has settled its litigation. No terms were revealed.

He said Brannan can detail every penny spent by the estate and defend each expense.

Indiana moved to Vinalhaven in 1978, converting a former Victorian-style building that previously served as the Odd Fellows Lodge into his home and studio.

Indiana is best known for his iconic LOVE image.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Jan 08, 2021 08:35

This appears to be a contemporary version of Charles Dickinson's "Bleak House" wherein contested wills only profited the lawyers.  -Phyllis Merriam

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