Petitioners claiming to be the legal heirs of photographer Vivian Maier are once again back in court, this time with 300 pages of genealogical evidence to support their claim, according to attorney (and former photographer) David Deal. “There’s no doubt” they are blood relations to Maier, asserts Deal, who did most of the research and helped prepare the petition, which was filed last month in an Illinois probate court in Chicago.
If the court accepts the evidence and grants their claims as Maier’s heirs, they will be entitled to a portion of the value of her estate, Deal says. A hearing on the petition is scheduled for September.
Maier was unknown as a photographer when she died in 2009 without leaving a will. But thousands of her vintage prints and negatives were discovered in a storage locker in Chicago after her death, and sold to collectors. Among the buyers were Jeffrey Goldstein and John Maloof, who helped bring acclaim to Maier’s work and turned her into a legend posthumously.
Although the collectors had physical possession of Maier’s work, they didn’t own the copyrights, so they had no legal right to exploit her work. A race to find Maier’s rightful heirs was on. Deal got involved in the search as a matter of principle, he says. “I felt like what Maloof and Goldstein were doing was fundamentally wrong,” he says.
With Deal and others raising the copyright issue, the state of Illinois appointed a public administrator to oversee the estate, pending claims by any heirs.
The administrator eventually made a deal with Maloof, allowing him to continue exploiting the Maier work in his possession, in exchange for sharing the revenue with the state of Illinois. Details of the agreement have not been made public, however.
Last year, the administrator sued Goldstein for copyright infringement to force him to discontinue exploiting the Maier work in his possession. The case is still pending.
Claims by individuals seeking standing as legal heirs to Maier’s estate have failed in the past. Deal petitioned an Illinois probate judge four years ago on behalf of one of the current petitioners, but that first petition was rejected for lack of enough supporting evidence.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Deal. “I was asking the judge to declare my client an heir based on a fraction of the evidence we have now. The judge refused to do so, and rightly.”
Deal explains that at the time, there was no proof that Maier had no descendants through siblings. Those descendants, if they existed, would have trumped all other blood relatives in claims to Maier’s estate.
Since then, researchers have established through official government records that Maier’s only sibling, a brother, died without having any children.
That left Maier’s estate open to claims by more distant relatives. Deal explains that under Illinois state law, any descendants of Maier’s great-grandparents are eligible to make claims to her estate. Through genealogical research he funded in the U.S., France, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria, Deal says he found two potential heirs on Maier’s mother’s side of the family, and eight on her father’s side.
None are U.S. citizens, so none would be eligible to administer Maier’s estate under Illinois law, even if they’re granted standing as heirs. But they would be entitled to proceeds collected by the court-appointed public administrator.
Of his decision to try to track down Maier’s heirs more than five years ago, Deal says, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And if I knew, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.”
Deal says he got involved as a matter of principle, explaining that his concern from the beginning was “preserving the copyright of Ms. Maier, and getting it into the hands of the people who should have it, not in the hands of people who stumbled on her [photographs] and appropriated her copyright.
“[Maloof and Goldstein’s] argument, in simple terms, is: ‘We found the work, and brought the work to the public’s attention, so we deserve some power and authority [in determining] how the work is printed and sold.’ That’s a terrible argument,” Deal says, while acknowledging that Maloof, at least, had good intentions. But the way he went about it was “violating copyright of the estates, and that shouldn’t be rewarded,” Deal says.
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