Editor’s note: Hours after this story was published, an attorney revealed Robert Indiana, the artist at the heart of the story, died Friday from respiratory failure. He was 89.
MANHATTAN (CN) – Describing a $30 million forgery scheme, the longtime patron of pop artist Robert Indiana claims in a federal complaint that an art publisher is exploiting the elderly creator of the iconic “LOVE” sculpture.
“Indiana’s good fortune has taken a dark turn,” the Morgan Art Foundation says in its complaint. “He is bedridden and infirm. He cannot create works of art. He is vulnerable. And defendants have exploited him.”
Turning 90 this September, Indiana is himself a defendant to the May 18 complaint.
“This is not a he-said, she-said case,” the foundation’s attorney, Quinn Emanuel partner Luke Nikas, emphasized Monday in a phone interview. “We have Robert Indiana on video saying that what is happening is not authorized.”
As alleged in the complaint, Indiana’s exploitation has occurred at the hands of art publisher American Image Art, its founder Michael McKenzie, and Jamie Thomas, described as a Maine fisherman to whom Indiana signed power of attorney.
“They have isolated Indiana from his friends and supporters, forged some of Indiana’s most recognizable works, exhibited the fraudulent works in museums, and sold the fraudulent works to unsuspecting collectors for millions of dollars,” the complaint states.
McKenzie’s scathing response ended with a threat of a countersuit.
“This is a frivolous lawsuit made by nasty liars who hide behind LLCs and offshore fake addresses,” McKenzie said in an email.
The Morgan Art Foundation describes itself in the complaint as a Bahamas limited liability company.
“The series of made up quotes only shows how awful they are as people, far too horrible to be in the art world,” McKenzie continued. “Our counterclaims, the facts and the federal court will send them back to the fake offshore hiding places they should be hiding in.”
Morgan Art’s 53-page complaint lays out an extensive overview of Indiana’s career, starting with his breakthrough painting “The American Dream I” and sculpture “Moon” in 1960.
Four years later, Indiana would create his most famous sculpture, “LOVE,” which traveled the world with its “O” tilted to the right and appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1973. Friday’s lawsuit questions the provenance of a “HOPE” riff on that iconic work created in support of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“Ultimately, we’re very saddened to file this lawsuit,” Nikas said.
The Morgan Foundation claims that it helped rescue Indiana’s broader oeuvre overshadowed by the success of his most famous and commercialized work, a rehabilitation effort that paved the way for the Whitney Museum’s 2013 retrospective “Beyond LOVE.”
The lawsuit seeks punitive damages for defamation, unfair competition, breach of contract, and copyright and trademark infringement, among other claims.
Roughly a dozen pages of the complaint contain illustrations of works that the Morgan Art Foundation contends are forged.
“The 2016 forged works followed a series of other fraudulent images peddled by McKenzie and American Image that were falsely claimed to be authentic Robert Indiana works — including unauthorized reproductions of the ‘LOVE’ image that were exhibited at major art fairs,” the complaint states. “Indiana himself has disavowed authorizing or creating such works. He has even disavowed McKenzie’s prolific reproductions of one of the most recognized works in recent years: an image of ‘HOPE’ styled in the same stacked format as the ‘LOVE’ image that was produced in 2008 in support of the Obama presidential campaign.”
In a phone interview, Nikas said that Indiana unveiled the disputed ‘HOPE’ works at his 80th birthday party.
“McKenzie tells me they’re my new paintings,” Indiana said at the time, according to Nikas.
American Image Art has not responded to an email request for comment.
“This litigation is about protecting Robert Indiana’s art and legacy,” Nikas said in an email. “This litigation is also about shutting down a rogue and brazenly unlawful scheme to create and sell forged Indiana art. The criminal and shameful enterprise has been carried out by people who have exploited a great American artist late in his life.”