PORTLAND, Maine — The estate of artist Robert Indiana, creator of the iconic LOVE series, auctioned off two paintings that belonged to him to raise money to defend against a lawsuit and to stabilize his deteriorating island home off the Maine coast.
Christie’s Auction House sold the two works, one by Ellsworth Kelly and the other by Ed Ruscha, for a combined $5 million at the gavel on Friday in New York.
Some in the art community were critical of the sale of the Indiana items.
Critics were especially disappointed by the sale of the 1957 painting “Orange Peel,” a gift from close friend, Kelly. The two forged a relationship in New York, and critics believe the painting should be shown in Indiana’s Maine home once it’s transformed into a museum . The other painting was Ruscha’s “Ruby.”
The cash is needed because of mounting legal bills from a New York lawsuit claiming Indiana breached an agreement with the Morgan Art Foundation by entering into a side agreement with an art publisher, said estate attorney James Brannan.
Some of the money also will be used to shore Indiana’s home, the Star of Hope, which suffers from a leaky roof and other problems.
“It seems hasty and inappropriate,” Princeton University art professor emeritus John Wilmerding said of the auction. “The danger is that once they start selling stuff, it will just accelerate with each new crisis.”
The reclusive artist died at age 89 on May 19 at his home on Vinalhaven Island, 15 miles off the coast of Rockland, Maine. The New York lawsuit was filed the day before he died. The foundation that sued controls the copyright to “LOVE,” his instantly recognizable artwork from the 1960s.
Indiana’s estate is rich on art — it includes more than 700 major pieces valued at more than $60 million — but is short on cash, Brannan said. That’s why the decision was made to sell a few pieces to raise some money.
Brannan said he consulted with an art curator and decided that he had another 13 other works by Kelly, including a dozen sketches of Indiana that would serve to tell the story of the relationship. He also said he’s reached out to the new owner of “Orange Peel” to see about having it loaned and exhibited at Indiana’s museum.
Wilmerding, a friend of Indiana’s who paid summer visits to the Star of Hope, said he hopes someone can step in to ensure that Indiana’s artwork isn’t sold willy-nilly.
“Is this the first of what now will be an ‘open sesame?’ What’s going to follow? It’s not a good precedent,” he said.