In a new court filing in the continuing legal tussle over Robert Indiana’s artwork and legacy, one of the late-artist’s art dealers is accusing another of forging and selling new Indiana artworks and emptying a New York studio of hundreds of those works in advance of a court-ordered inspection.

In a sworn declaration filed by the Morgan Art Foundation in its federal copyright infringement and fraud case against Michael McKenzie, one of his former employees says he observed McKenzie forging Indiana artworks with a stencil and stamp and that other employees said McKenzie pressured them to forge Indiana’s signature. In a sworn statement filed in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York late Friday, former McKenzie employee Osvaldo Gonzalez said McKenzie threatened his employees with violence if they did not cooperate.

“For example, McKenzie made it known to me and his employees that he owns guns, and he would repeatedly discuss violent incidents involving guns and shootings,” Gonzalez said in his statement. “McKenzie’s anecdotes involving guns made me fearful that he was capable of committing gun violence, and it was clear to me based on McKenzie’s repeated stories about gun violence that was his intention.”

Robert Indiana’s “Love.” Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

Gonzalez made his statement on behalf of Morgan Art Foundation, a for-profit company that began working contractually with Indiana in the late 1990s to produce and reproduce his artwork, including his most famous image, “LOVE” with its tilted “O.” Indiana created the work in the 1960s but never trademarked or copyrighted it. McKenzie, a New York art publisher doing business as American Image Art, signed contracts with Indiana beginning in 2008 to produce work based on “HOPE,” also with a tilted “O.” A stainless steel “HOPE” sculpture debuted at the Democratic National Convention in August of that year.

The legal case between the late-artist’s art dealers is part of federal civil litigation that has ensnared Indiana since it was filed on the eve of his death in May 2018. Indiana died at his longtime home on Vinalhaven island at age 89. After he died, Indiana’s estate and the foundation he formed to manage his legacy, the Star of Hope Foundation, became embroiled in the Morgan Art lawsuit. Those three parties – the Indiana estate, the Star of Hope Foundation and Morgan Art – reached a confidential settlement of their portion of the legal dispute this past spring, leaving Morgan Art and McKenzie to continue to battle.

Gonzalez’s sworn declaration was included with a joint letter by Morgan Art and McKenzie’s attorneys filed with the court Friday, capping two weeks of back-and-forth letters between the parties and the court regarding the removal of “truckloads” of artwork from McKenzie’s studio in Katonah, New York. In those letters, Morgan Art attorney Luke Nikas said he received an unsolicited “whistleblower” phone call from Gonzalez in late August, prompting him to request more time from the court for depositions related to Gonzalez’s assertions and asking the court to consider imposing “case-terminating sanctions” against McKenzie.

In their joint Friday letter, Nikas and McKenzie’s attorneys, John Markham and Bridget Zerner, proposed a mutually agreed-on time frame for depositions and for Nikas to file his brief in support of his motion for sanctions and contempt against McKenzie. A pre-motion conference on that proposed time frame was scheduled for Monday in New York. If accepted, the court proceedings will stretch until late December, all but assuring the case will continue into 2022.

In their letter, McKenzie’s attorneys said they did not concede to Morgan Art’s allegations of McKenzie’s conduct and that they needed to time to depose Gonzalez themselves.

“We note that (Morgan Art) does not include Mr. Gonzalez in their proposed depositions but instead submit a one-sided declaration from him. As the critical ‘whistleblower’ on which (Morgan Art) relies, we would like to take his deposition as well in advance of the briefing on (Morgan Art’s) proposed motion.”

In his declaration, Gonzalez said McKenzie arranged for truckloads of art to be removed from his property before an early August court-ordered inspection by Nikas and Morgan Art. Those works included pieces he has been accused of making and reproducing illegally.

“McKenzie also removed blank silkscreens from his studio and brought them into his house so they would not be seen during the inspection,” Gonzalez said in his declaration. He also said McKenzie ordered the “HOPE” sculpture from the Democratic National Convention be covered with a tarp to conceal it.

He also alleged McKenzie devised a plan to hide the ownership of artwork through various trusts “and that he wanted to make it as hard as possible for anyone to obtain and enforce a judgment against him or his assets if the litigation … resulted in a negative decision.”

Gonzalez said he has known McKenzie for 13 years, that he has worked for him periodically, and moved into a building on McKenzie’s property in Katonah in 2019, where he currently resides with his family. He said he accompanied McKenzie by car from New York to Portland for mediation hearings with the Maine attorney general and other parties involved in the New York case in November 2019. Despite signing a term sheet during mediation hearings, McKenzie told Gonzalez he would not abide by it, according to the declaration, because among other things it limited his ability to produce Indiana’s artworks and he did not like the expert-review process to determine the authenticity of artworks unrelated to “HOPE.”

“I have observed McKenzie forging Robert Indiana artworks,” Gonzalez contends in his declaration. “McKenzie uses a stencil and stamp to forge Indiana’s signature on the back of artworks. The stencils were designed by Indiana during his lifetime and have specific years that are intended to indicate the year in which the artworks were created. None of the stencils post-date 2018, when Indiana died, yet McKenzie used those stencils after Indiana’s death to sign works – falsely indicating that Indiana signed the works and falsely indicating the year in which the works were created.”

Markham, McKenzie’s Maine-based attorney, did not return a message on Monday requesting an interview to discuss the new allegations.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.