Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Just days before Robert Indiana’s death, an offshore shell company filed a copyright suit against him over his beloved public artwork.
Robert Indiana, the sculptor whose most famous work charted the course for public art everywhere, died on Saturday on a remote island off the coast of Maine, where he lived in isolation. He was 89. While he gave the world LOVE—an image as ubiquitous, as pure, and as saccharine as the emotion itself—the work was a source of lifelong frustration for the artist, right up to his death.
On Friday, the day before Indiana (born Robert Clark) died, a company called the Morgan Art Foundation Limited sued the artist and several associates for copyright infringement. The organization claims that it has owned the copyright for LOVE and several similarly configured works by Indiana, including AMOR and YALE, since the late 1990s. The suit alleges that recent artworks produced by Indiana violate the copyright of the Morgan Art Foundation—an offshore company whose owners and interests are secret.
This case illuminates a bitter irony: When Indiana first sketched the chunky stack of blocky letters in 1964, he failed to properly file a copyright for LOVE as the law required at the time. The image went on to achieve fame when the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Indiana to design a Christmas card in 1965. The original LOVE sculpture was installed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1970. Three years later, the design found immortality when the U.S. Postal Service stamped out 330 million LOVE postage stamps.
Only after the law for intellectual property changed in 1976 did Indiana win some limited rights for the work. But by that time, the image had long since transcended the world of sculpture, becoming a stand-in for the worst overreaches in commercial public art, and an albatross around the artist’s neck. Global riches eluded Indiana; instead, he gained notoriety.
Now, the story of LOVE is fated to end in acrimony. The individuals who claim to own the work after Indiana’s death have gone to lengths to keep their identity a secret.
In recent years, the fight over LOVE has intensified. Philadelphia—a city with a spiritual claim to the sculpture, which was first installed there as part of the Bicentennial celebration in 1976—has sold LOVE-themed tchotchkes for years without incident. But the city received a cease-and-desist letter in December, even as hundreds of fans lined up in Love Park to purchase a $50 limited-edition granite LOVE keepsake, with funds going to maintain the park.
Another artist, who said Indiana gave him permission to make a sculpture of “PREM”—Sanskrit for love—faced a lawsuit in 2012.
The Morgan Art Foundation has registered two federal trademarks for the design and reproduction of LOVE—“the letters ‘LO’ above letters ‘VE’ in a stylized form”—and has applied for a third. The existing trademarks apply to umbrellas, credit-card holders, backpacks, and more. (The pending trademark, for ceramics and crafts, seems designed to block Philadelphia’s Love Park fundraiser.)
“Given the artist’s death, it’s even more important to pursue the case and protect Robert Indiana’s legacy,” says Luke Nikas, an attorney for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan who is representing the Morgan Art Foundation.
The lawsuit, which attorneys filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Friday, details a history of LOVE that centers around an art dealer named Simon Salama-Caro. In 1998, Salama-Caro visited Indiana at his home in Vinalhaven, Maine. The artist, then 70, had long since retreated from the art world. The dealer had a plan. “[Salama-Caro] had a strategy to revive Indiana’s career: years of hard work and investment, strict enforcement of Indiana’s rights, and a focus on quality,” the suit’s history reads.
The lawsuit claims that Salama-Caro and Morgan Art Foundation struck a deal with Indiana that gave them exclusive rights to LOVE and other images, for which Indiana would receive 50 percent of the sales. The contract was later amended: first, to give the Morgan Art Foundation the rights to all of Indiana’s paintings and sculpture from 1960 to 2004, and then to give the Morgan Art Foundation the exclusive rights to produce or fabricate LOVE and related images. For these works, Indiana’s cut was limited to 20 percent.
The Morgan Art Foundation’s lawsuit alleges that Jamie L. Thomas, a fisherman and Indiana’s caretaker (and former studio assistant), had isolated Indiana, preventing the dealer and his son, Marc Salama-Caro, from seeing the artist. “[Thomas] refuses to permit visitors to Indiana’s home,” the lawsuit reads. “He writes aggressive and threatening emails from Indiana’s email account—including an email sent to Marc Salama-Caro shortly after Marc visited Indiana at Indiana’s request, telling Marc to ‘FUCK OFF’ and to never return to Vinalhaven.”
The New York Times published a story on Friday on the lawsuit that suggested that Indiana had vanished, and perhaps not entirely of his own will. In the story, Salama-Caro and Barbara Haskell—the curator who assembled a redemptive 2013 retrospective for Indiana at the Whitney Museum of American Art called “Beyond Love”—both cast doubt about Indiana’s participation in an email interview with Wine Enthusiast. The magazine’s May issue bears the likeness of LOVE on its cover, except the word is “WINE.” (An editor for the magazine says the interview and permission were arranged by one Michael McKenzie, who is a defendant in the suit.)
The new lawsuit claims that McKenzie, the founder of an art publishing company named American Image Art, has issued unlicensed editions of Indiana’s work that violate the offshore fund’s copyright. The suit darkly insinuates that McKenzie has taken advantage of an infirm creator. “The public narrative surrounding these forged works also reveals the shift from Indiana’s voice to the voice of his exploiters,” the lawsuit reads. “Indiana, when of sound mind, sought to distance his legacy from the relentless focus on LOVE.”
Yet the Morgan Art Foundation is fighting for the right to make LOVE—and to profit immensely on its reproduction—not to discontinue or destroy it. Even as the company calls McKenzie’s motives into question, the identity of the Morgan Art Foundation’s backers has been kept out of view.
Two individuals now claim to own the rights to Indiana’s LOVE: Robert Gore and Felippe Grossglauser. According to the attorney who represents the Morgan Art Foundation, an offshore limited liability company, those are its only two executives. He declined to say any more about their identities, except that Gore lives in London and is not the Robert Gore of Gore-Tex fame. Salama-Caro is the company’s advisor, not a claimant in the suit itself.
Neither the suit nor the article in The New York Times discusses the Morgan Art Foundation or how it came to be associated with Indiana. But the contracts that the artist signed gave the company great authority over his work. Late amendments clarified that Indiana’s 20 percent would come after deductions for any expenses incurred by the Morgan Art Foundation. The agreement gave the company “exclusive authority to fabricate the Sculptures”—binding even after his death.
The Morgan Art Foundation Limited, a shell company, was registered in the Bahamas in 1993, at around the same time Salama-Caro first approached Indiana. A search of the Panama Papers—a database of leaks on offshore accounts, which is maintained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists—reveals that the Morgan Art Foundation comprises several interests. In addition to two unknown “bearer” shareholders, the entry for the shell company shows other officers, including Sofidev Fiduciaire S.A., an entity linked to a wider web of offshore accounts.
It may well be the case that McKenzie and Thomas are acting outside the best interests of Indiana’s estate. A two-over-two sculpture of “WINE” or “HOPE” might obscure what Indiana had hoped to accomplish. The artist struggled mightily to escape from under the shadow of LOVE; no doubt the public conservation about his life and work in the days and weeks to come will focus on what his art meant entirely apart from the power of LOVE.
But the two men who now own LOVE have another immediate concern: enforcing their copyright and preventing the trademark dilution of one of the most lucrative brands on earth.
The value of LOVE owes almost entirely to the fact that it’s a public artwork, its status maintained at considerable expense by Philadelphia and other cities and museums where editions of the sculpture exist. The good fortune of its investor-owners is excluded from public taxation, enhanced by every selfie, and protected by what must be a dusk-to-dawn campaign of cease-and-desist letters.
Much to Indiana’s chagrin, LOVE—a progenitor of the sensation of Instagram art that can be seen in every city today—was never truly his. But by the time he signed over the legal rights to the work, LOVE belonged to the world. Just never on paper.