Christie’s in New York is offering two pieces of art from the private collection of Vinalhaven artist Robert Indiana in a controversial sale to help pay the mounting legal bills of the late artist’s estate and make critical repairs before winter to his deteriorating island home, the once-grand Star of Hope.

Maine Preservation listed the Star of Hope as one of Maine’s most endangered historical places two weeks ago.

Friday’s auction in New York, focusing on postwar and contemporary art, includes “Orange Blue,” an oil painting by Ellsworth Kelly from 1957, and “Ruby,” an oil by Ed Ruscha from 1968. Both were part of a personal art collection mostly housed at the Star of Hope, Indiana’s home on Vinalhaven since the late the 1970s when he moved to Maine from New York. Together, the paintings could bring more than $4 million at the Friday morning auction. Indiana’s collection also included pieces by Louise Nevelson and Roy Lichtenstein.

Indiana died May 19 at age 89, the day after he, his island caretaker and one of his art dealers were named in a federal lawsuit filed by an art foundation that represents much of his work and controls the copyright to his iconic “LOVE” image. The suit, filed in New York, alleges fraud and abuse. The estate is a defendant in the federal suit, which is in the discovery phase and could move to a Manhattan courtroom early in 2019.

SELLING ART TO PAY BILLS

The sale is controversial because Kelly and Ruscha are considered important to Indiana’s identity as an artist and private person and are essential to a larger understanding of his life, work and place in contemporary American culture. Indiana and Kelly were lovers in New York, and Ruscha, like Indiana, used text in his art. Indiana’s friends, art scholars and curators worry the sale signals the first step in stripping Indiana’s estate of its depth. Indiana’s will stipulates that a foundation be established to operate the Star of Hope as a museum. Losing those works from the collection diminishes the potential scope of the museum because of their ability to provide context for Indiana’s life, they said, though none of them recalled ever seeing either the Kelly or the Ruscha hanging at the Star of Hope or other buildings that Indiana owned on the island.

The estate’s attorney, James Brannan of Rockland, said he is selling the artwork because he has bills to pay and doesn’t want to borrow money. “I recognize the relationship between Robert Indiana and Ellsworth Kelly. It was more than just a friendship. But I need money. I have legal bills to pay that are going through the roof, no pun intended.”

His wordplay references the deteriorating Star of Hope roof, which is leaking badly and causing structural damage to the late-19th-century, three-story mansion, a former lodge of an island Odd Fellows order founded in 1874.

Ellsworth Kelly’s “Orange Blue,” oil on canvas, 16”x12”

HOUSE NEEDS FIXES

The condition of the roof “has only gotten worse” since the Maine Preservation designation two weeks ago, Brannan said, and immediate fixes are necessary. He removed all the artwork from the house this summer. He hoped to fix the roof this week, but high winds first prevented a crane coming over from the mainland and then kept a crew from getting atop the structure. “I would not want guys on that roof so far this week,” he wrote in an email Wednesday evening. “Blowing a gale on Penobscot Bay.”

In an interview, Brannan said he understood the concerns about selling the paintings, but called the sale necessary and prudent given his position as the estate’s attorney. Further, he said, the estate still owns 14 artworks by Kelly including a dozen sketches of Indiana, mostly profiles and facials. “I think those pieces of artwork, especially the sketches of Bob, go a long way toward telling the story that needs to be told of the relationship between Bob and Ellsworth Kelly,” Brannan said.

‘SAGA OF SAD NEWS’

Ellsworth resident Kathleen Rogers, a former publicist of Indiana’s and his longtime admirer and friend, called Friday’s sale “unfortunate” and the latest episode in what has become “a never-ending saga of sad news” surrounding Indiana’s death. She worries about significant art being “dumped on the market” to raise quick money. “They are important and lend a lot of depth to Bob’s biography,” Rogers said. “I have nothing but respect for Jim Brannan. He is the right man for the job and is genuinely trying to navigate this minefield in the best way possible. But it’s very unfortunate these paintings are going.”

John Wilmerding, an art scholar from Princeton University and part-time Maine resident, told the British newspaper the Guardian that the two paintings up for sale are “very important” to Indiana’s identity. “If the estate is ever going to be preserved or studied or visited … it seems to me works like that are essential as part of a bigger picture,” the Guardian quoted him as saying.

Linda Conti, an assistant Maine attorney general, said she was concerned about the Christie’s auction, but had no legal recourse to intervene. She is monitoring the Indiana case through her position as overseer of the AG’s office of consumer protection to ensure the nonprofit Star of Hope foundation is funded and run properly. She is “anxious to get the charity up and running” as soon as possible to preserve its value.

“The charity at some point will have to receive some cash and artwork, and it might have some interest in what artwork is being sold,” Conti said. “That’s the issue, but I am not sure what I can do about it. … It’s complicated. The charity is hanging out there waiting for it to be resolved. As attorney general, my position is, ‘Let’s get this resolved,’ but the case has to be settled first.”

That’s a long way off. Indiana’s estate, roughly valued at $60 million, will “remain open” until the litigation in New York is resolved, Brannan said. “If the judgment is against the estate, I have to have assets to pay that judgment,” he said. “The estate will not be wrapped up until that is over with, and there is no end in sight. It’s a mess.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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