All Artists Die - Plan What Happens to Your Work

December 2022, by Daniel Grant

The end of a famous artist’s life might be thought of as a time of tributes and celebration. But that was not the case for Robert Indiana, best known for his image of the stacked letters LOVE. 

He died at his island home in Vinalhaven, Maine, in 2018, a few months short of his 90th birthday. A day before his death, a lawsuit was filed by the artist’s agent, the Morgan Art Foundation, against his studio manager, Jamie L. Thomas, and against another company, the New York-based American Art Image, which Thomas allowed to produce allegedly unauthorized editions of the artist’s work. 

American Art Image was accused of copyright and trademark infringement. Indiana, described in the lawsuit as “bedridden and infirm” and intentionally isolated by Thomas, had a new will drawn in 2016, superseding his 2013 will, which turned over power of attorney to Thomas. 

“It is our contention that Indiana was in poor health, and he had a difficult time reading,” said Luke Nikas, one of the lawyers representing the Morgan Art Foundation. “He was not aware that he had assigned power of attorney and not mentally competent” to provide informed consent to what was being done in his name. 

Fraud? Forgery? Shortly after the artist’s death, an FBI agent arrived on the island to investigate Indiana’s death, ordering an autopsy, and Maine’s attorney general then brought a case claiming the estate paid excessive legal fees during litigation. There were lots of charges and countercharges. It took three years to conclude most of the lawsuits. 

When multimedia artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) suffered a stroke in 1996, it largely curtailed his ability to create new installations. But his career was far from over. Exhibitions of his work were being planned, new pieces were still being fabricated, and existing works continued to be put up for sale at galleries. 

What’s more, a series of sculptures purportedly by Paik, but which the artist denied were his, were put up for sale, leading to two lawsuits against Paik. His lawyers chose to settle the lawsuits, because Paik was not deemed mentally competent to testify at trial. “You can see this as people taking advantage of a senile artist,” said Paik’s nephew and estate executor, Ken Hakuta. “He was sick.” 

Maintain Records

The lawsuits were eventually resolved out of court. Had Paik maintained a documentary record for all his work — signed and initialed by all parties involved — the confusion might have been resolved more quickly and with less expense. 

Diminished brain function may prove catastrophic for an artist whose business is run completely out of his or her head. “Just getting old is hard,” said Dr. John Zeisel, director of the  

Woburn, Massachusetts-based organization Artists for Alzheimer’s. “Bills don’t get paid; things don’t get put away. Most creative types have things lying around anyway, and when they develop dementia, it becomes much harder to organize.”  

Problems that may occur are: 

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