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Part of the legal saga surrounding the estate of Vivian Maier is drawing to a close a year and a half after it began. The Cook County public administrator, which since late 2014 has been administering the deceased photographer’s estate, is close to finalizing an agreement with John Maloof, the man who owns the majority of her known work. The news was first reported by the Chicago Tribune and confirmed to Hyperallergic by the public administrator’s office.
“We have a tentative agreement with John that is very close to being finalized. Because this is a supervised administration in the probate court in Cook County, the judge has to approve it,” said Leah Jakubowski, general counsel for the public administrator of Cook County. At a hearing yesterday, Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan scheduled a May 17 court date to settle her approval of the deal.
Although its terms are being kept under wraps — “there is some sensitive financial information” involved, according to Jakubowski — the agreement is essentially a licensing deal concerning Maloof’s ability to print, display, and otherwise use Maier’s images. He had been doing so for years — ever since buying a box of Maier’s negatives at an estate sale in 2007 and discovering her talent — until July 2014, when David Deal, a photographer–turned–law student, filed a petition in Cook County probate court to determine Maier’s rightful heir. Prior to that, Maloof, working with genealogists, had tracked down a man in France whom he determined to be Maier’s closest heir and paid the relative $5,000 for the rights to her photographs. But Maloof never sought legal recognition of the agreement in Illinois or closed Maier’s estate, so Deal was able to contest it.
Maier, a longtime nanny with seemingly no family of her own, died destitute and without a will in 2009, her work as a photographer at that point still unknown. Two years before her death, she defaulted on payments for a storage locker; John Maloof bought a chunk of the contents at the subsequent auction. His ownership of such a large portion of her work is part of what has made the Cook County case so complicated.
“Mr. Maloof had in his possession the physical objects, the negatives, which would typically be in the possession of the photographer and the estate, the copyright owner,” explained Greg Chinlund, an intellectual property attorney who’s worked with the Cook County public administrator on the Maier case. “You had this division which is atypical in most situations — that [makes it] challenging to negotiate the final terms of the agreement.” Further complicating the proceedings has been the fact that, thanks to efforts of Maloof and other collectors, a market for Maier’s work already existed, one that the public administrator did not want to upset. “I think both John and the estate should be credited for handling it in a way that really seemed to avoid any negative impact on her body of work,” said Chinlund.
“I’m content, for sure,” said Maloof of the agreement, though he added that he hasn’t actually signed it yet. He explained that despite “scary” letters sent by Cook County at the outset, suggesting that he and others might have had to stop printing and showing Maier’s work, he’s been able to continue with exhibitions and other projects. “The estate was OK with that,” he said. “We ran everything by them.” What he did take a break from was the costly process of developing rolls of Maier’s film, of which he has “600 or 700.” He now plans to return to that. “I’m happy to get to a place where there’s an incentive to continue moving the project forward and spending money to process rolls of film.”
What won’t be resolved next week is the question of Maier’s heirship. Maloof and Deal have each put forward different candidates, both cousins of the photographer, but neither has yet been determined as the rightful inheritor of her estate. When Maier’s work was first discovered, she was unheard of, and despite Maloof’s digging into her story, she remained an enigma. Much more of her history has been uncovered over the past year and a half — for instance, an amateur researcher tracked down records confirming the death of her brother — but her family tree remains incomplete. It’s possible her brother had a spouse or children, claims David Deal, who, although he continues to represent “his” heir, has had no official involvement with the case since Cook County took over. In conversation with Hyperallergic, he said that Maier’s mother’s side has mostly been mapped, but “the father’s side is much more complicated.” He also noted that some estates in situations like this never get settled — “I wouldn’t want to guess how many … there are a lot.”
When asked if there was any kind of timeline for resolving the issue of the heir, Jakubowski replied that there wasn’t. “We’re just working to try and figure out who the next-closest relative would be, and that takes a lot of time,” she said.