VINALHAVEN — The former caretaker of the late world-renowned artist Robert Indiana has filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the estate to pay his legal bills totaling $2 million.

The lawsuit was filed Friday in Knox County Superior Court seeks legal expenses allegedly paid by Jamie L. Thomas.

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

Indiana’s will – signed by the artist in May 2016 – left nearly his entire $60 million estate to support the nonprofit organization Star of Hope Inc., which will turn his home and studio into a museum. Thomas is to run the museum, according to the will.

The estate’s attorney, James Brannan of Rockland, said Monday that there is ongoing litigation in federal court and that during the discovery process – exchange of evidence – “serious questions about Jamie Thomas’ breaches of fiduciary responsibility to Robert Indiana” have been raised.

Brannan said he will provide details of those issues when he files a formal written response in the Knox County court to Thomas’ lawsuit.

Thomas states in his suit that he was Indiana’s friend, trusted confidant, assistant, caretaker, and toward the end of Indiana’s life, had the power of attorney.

“For many years, Thomas stood by Indiana’s side as he aged in his Vinalhaven home, supported Indiana as he continued to create artwork, and fought to secure his artistic legacy,” the lawsuit by Thomas states.

Robert Indiana poses at his studio in Vinalhaven in 2009. Associated Press/Joel Page

Thomas said he now finds himself in the middle of a heated battle in federal court in New York over Indiana’s artwork. This has already cost Thomas $2 million in attorney fees and costs and continues to increase, according to the lawsuit.

The federal case is not expected to go to trial until 2020.

The lawsuit said Thomas was one of only a handful of islanders who related to Indiana on a personal basis.

Thomas began working for Indiana in the late 1980s. He said in the lawsuit that Indiana recognized a natural artistic talent in Thomas and helped him develop as an artist. The two had group shows at local galleries.

Thomas began working for Indiana full-time in the fall of 2013. He details a time in February 2014 when Indiana, raised a Christian Scientist, became extremely ill with pneumonia. Thomas said Indiana declined medical care but that Thomas remained with him around the clock for several weeks until the artist recovered.

As Thomas began taking responsibility for Indiana’s finances, he raised questions about whether the artist was being paid what he was owed by the Morgan Art Foundation, which marketed Indiana’s work. His lawsuit contends that Indiana repeatedly stated to Brannan, his attorney, that if litigation between the Morgan Art Foundation and Thomas developed,  Thomas was “to be protected at all costs.”

A federal lawsuit filed by Morgan Art in New York on May 18, 2018 – the day before Indiana died – accuses Thomas and Michael McKenzie of isolating and exploiting Indiana, forging his art and exhibiting some of it in museums.

Thomas states in his Maine lawsuit that attorney Brannan knows those allegations are false. Thomas stated that his off-island reputation has been shattered and his reputation on the island would have been as well if islanders had not seen first-hand how Thomas sacrificed his own family life to “provide unflagging care to Indiana.”

In May 2019, Brannan filed paperwork in court notifying Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. and Simon Salama-Caro that all their agreements with Indiana were terminated, and that Morgan was no longer authorized to reproduce any works based on images of Indiana’s art, including his “LOVE” design.

The estate also has informed American Image Art and McKenzie that their agreements with Indiana were terminated, and that they were no longer authorized to reproduce works based on images of Indiana’s art, including his “HOPE” design.

In addition, the estate’s attorneys at Venable LLP asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for permission to add counterclaims against Morgan Art, Salama-Caro, and related entities to the lawsuit filed by Morgan Art. The proposed counterclaim seeks declaratory and injunctive relief relating to the terminated agreements. The claims also allege breaches of fiduciary duties, for which the estate seeks damages, disgorgement of profits, and other relief.

“Defendants Morgan and Salama-Caro portray themselves as champions of the artist Robert Indiana, who cared about his personal welfare and dedicated themselves to promoting his legacy and building a market for his works. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for decades, Morgan and Salama-Caro systematically took advantage of Indiana, maximizing their own profits at his expense,” the counterclaim states.

A lawyer representing Morgan issued a statement in May in response to the claims.

“Morgan Art Foundation entered into binding contracts with Robert Indiana and spent a fortune funding Robert Indiana’s artistic creations when no one else would. It has paid Indiana millions of dollars. Simon Salama-Caro has devoted nearly three decades promoting Indiana and his works, a relationship that started when Indiana’s market was negligible. The Estate’s false claims revise well-documented history so that the estate’s representatives – who had nothing to do with Indiana’s success and know virtually nothing about his art – can try to line their pockets with money that should instead be used to renovate Indiana’s beloved home and support Indiana’s non-profit foundation. These contracts will be upheld, and Morgan Art Foundation and Simon will continue to hold their place as the patron and the preeminent expert in Indiana’s art. Unfortunately, it is difficult to believe that the estate or the non-profit Indiana established will have adequate assets or ability to function when this is all over. Robert Indiana is turning in his grave,” attorney Luke Nikas stated.

Thomas is represented in Maine by attorneys Thomas Hallett and Benjamin Donahue of Portland. He is represented in the federal case in New York by Jenner and Block LLP and Christie & Young. He states in the lawsuit that he had to sell and encumber assets to make partial payments to the law firms.

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