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Portrait of an artist dying intestate

How a Toronto gallery owner is negotiating the delicate matter of who owns Vivian Maier’s iconic art

Highland Park, IL, 1961-65. Vivian Maier captured street scenes, portraits of children, studies of buildings, depictions of the working world and self-portraits in her photos. (Photos by Vivian Maier, Collection of Stephen Bulger Gallery)

Under other circumstances, the exhibition of about 40 photographs by the late Vivian Maier, opening Saturday at Toronto’s Stephen Bulger Gallery, would be as close to a slam-dunk in terms of public appeal, critical approbation and commercial success as you can get in the art world.

After all, there’s arguably been no bigger photographer on the planet in the past four or five years than Maier. In part, this has been due to the excellence (and variety) of the photos themselves, only a small fraction of which have been displayed to the public; they include self-portraits, portraits of children, street scenes, domestic scenes, beach scenes, studies of buildings and shadows and light, and depictions of the working world. Then, there’s the drama of Maier’s life and the myths encrusted around that life – Vivian Dorothy the reclusive, faintly mysterious spinster genius who earned her daily keep as a nanny in New York and Chicago, who died poor and lonely at 83 in 2009 just when – oh, cruel fate! – she seemed primed to slip the surly bonds of obscurity to join Helen Levitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Garry Winogrand and Canada’s Fred Herzog in the ranks of the great documentary photographers of the past 80 years.

Bulger’s most recent Maier show, held two years ago and titled Vivian Maier: Photographs of Children, was both an all-around success on its own terms and a seeming harbinger of greater triumphs. Fifty-three pictures, including 15 vintage prints, priced between $2,000 (U.S.) and $5,000 each, were displayed for sale; by the end of the exhibition’s two-month run, in mid-September, the sell-through was 94 per cent. Another show at Bulger in 2013, called Out of the Shadows and generally acknowledged as the first major Maier exhibition in Canada, had been similarly successful. In both instances, the photos had been consigned to Bulger by Jeffrey Goldstein, the Chicago artist and collector who at the time was, with another Chicago collector, John Maloof, one of the two biggest owners of Maier negatives, prints, unprocessed film and other material in the world.

This time, though, the exhibition Bulger is calling Vivian Maier: Meaning Without Context isn’t going to earn the highly respected commercial gallery the proverbial one thin dime, even as its proprietor/founder, Stephen Bulger, 52, has been fielding calls from dozens of collectors eager to buy. In fact, while Meaning Without Context is going to be Bulger’s longest-running exhibition of 2016 (it closes Sept. 10), none of its photographs, which span the years 1949 through 1974, is for sale – a first in the gallery’s 22-year history.

Workmen with Woolworth’s Sign, 1968. A tangled continuing legal dispute over copyright has severely curtailed the distribution of Maier photographs for the past two years.

Crazy, you say? Bulger uses the word himself to describe the situation. But he believes it’s the only rational response to a tangled continuing legal dispute over copyright that, since its origin two years ago in the United States, has severely curtailed the distribution of Maier photographs worldwide.

“I organized and scheduled [Meaning Without Context] 18 months ago, fully expecting that it would be resolved by now,” Bulger said in a recent interview, “but it hasn’t.” And because Bulger wants to be able to mount another nine, 10, 11 commercially viable Maier shows over the next 13 or 15 years, “I just don’t want to make any wrong steps.”

(Generally, in copyright law, ownership of an actual photographic negative and/or print is distinct from ownership of copyright. It’s the owner of copyright who has the legal authority to decide what can be reproduced and sold.)

Bulger has been deeply implicated in the Maier morass since December, 2014. That’s when he announced he had purchased, for an unspecified sum, all 15,000 or so black-and-white negatives in the Goldstein collection, almost all of them processed by Maier herself. Indeed, all the photographs in Meaning Without Context are printed from the negatives Bulger bought.

Goldstein’s decision to sell was prompted by a court action initiated in June that year by a Virginia-based lawyer and one-time commercial photographer, David C. Deal. Maier had died without a will, childless and with seemingly no living heirs in sight. A hoarder, she dumped many of her possessions in at least a half-dozen large storage lockers around Chicago. A couple of years before her death, Maier defaulted on the rent for four or five of those units whereupon their contents became the property of the locker company. These contents, in turn, were sold to an auctioneer who, after paying $250, promptly put most of Maier’s possessions in the trash. Luckily, he refrained from purging her photographic wares, including an estimated 150,000 negatives. These he divided into as many as 50 large bunches which he auctioned over three weeks. It’s been estimated anywhere from five to 12 people placed successful bids, earning the auctioneer a total of about $7,500.

One of the bidders was Maloof, a former real estate agent, who, among other purchases, acquired about 30,000 negatives for about $400. (Maloof eventually came to own an estimated 90 per cent of the Maier collection, including as many as 3,500 vintage prints, more than 100,000 black-and-white and colour negatives and, according to Bulger, “hundreds and hundreds of rolls of unprocessed film” that had been in a storage unit maintained by a family for whom Maier had been a nanny.)

Goldstein didn’t participate in the 2007 auctions but as an avid, in-the-know collector of what Bulger calls “fascinating objects,” the Maier photos soon came to his attention. Liking what he saw, he eventually purchased almost 20,000 negatives, vintage prints, colour slides, 8-mm movies and the like, mostly from two collectors, unrelated to Maloof, who’d also attended the auctions.

Man and Woman Talking, New York, 1959. None of Maier's photographs will be available for sale at the Stephen Bulger Gallery's latest exhibition – a first in the gallery’s 22-year history.

It’s been Goldstein and Maloof who, through books, travelling exhibitions, print sales and their respective websites, have propelled Maier to near-universal recognition. Maloof in 2013 even co-produced, co-wrote, co-directed, shot and narrated a documentary film, Finding Vivian Maier, that earned an Oscar nomination. All this attention, in turn, has sparked considerable research that, particularly in the past two years, has greatly clarified the dark glass of the Maier biography. We now know, for instance, that Maier was born in New York in 1926 to a French mother and Austrian father who divorced within a year of her birth and that she spent the next roughly 25 years shunting between France and the U.S., taking up photography likely as a teen and buying her first camera at 22.

Goldstein’s and Maloof’s labours haven’t been without controversy – a controversy that David C. Deal crystallized when he decided to do his own research into Maier’s past and that of her family. He reportedly was perturbed that individuals with no family connection to the photographer were making money – potentially millions of dollars – from prints struck from the negatives bought in 2007. Concerned, too, about copyright clearance, Maloof, collaborating with Goldstein, had himself earlier hired genealogists to scour the records. Their research revealed that Vivian had an older brother, born in New York in 1920, called, variously, Charles, Karl and Carl, who’d changed his last name on at least one occasion. His whereabouts by this time were unknown, however, as were any possible next-of-kin.

Eventually, the genealogists determined that a first cousin once removed, living in southeastern France, was the late photographer’s closest living relative. In 2013, Maloof inked a $5,000 copyright clearance agreement with the relative, Sylvain Jaussaud. Deal, however, disagreed with this determination, claiming to have discovered another, even closer relative, also living in southeastern France, named Francis Baille. Deal then proceeded to file an application in probate court to have Baille recognized as Maier’s heir.

By summer 2014, the dispute had come to the attention of the public administration office of Cook County, which, with Chicago in its borders, is the second-most populous state jurisdiction in the United States. Deciding to set up an estate for Maier, overseen by its public administrator, the county began to send letters to those selling Maier’s work. One recipient was the Stephen Bulger Gallery, which, at the time, was halfway through hosting its two-month exhibition of Maier’s photographs of children. The Aug. 19 letter advised Bulger to hold onto all documents relating to Maier. “We are investigating the potential misuses and infringement of copyrighted works whose rights are held by the estate,” the letter read, while predicting Cook County would be “filing litigation against the responsible parties upon completion of the investigation.”

Toronto gallery owner Stephen Bulger acquired 15,000 black-and-white negatives by Vivian Maier, including Washing Car shot in Highland Park, Ill, around 1960.

By fall 2014, Cook County appears to have determined that the evidence in support of both the Maloof heir and the Deal heir were insufficient. Instead, the county cast its lot with Maier’s older brother and instituted a waiting period wherein Charles, if he were still alive, or his family would be given until his 100th birthday to make a claim as rightful heir.

Goldstein, meanwhile, fearing seemingly unending negotiations, ruinously expensive legal difficulties as well as the threat that his trove might be seized by authorities, decided he would sell his negatives to Bulger but hold onto his 2,000 Maier prints and related paraphernalia.

Getting the negatives to another country, it was hoped, would add an extra layer of protection or at least dissuasion. Said Goldstein in a recent interview: “I have a great personal and professional affection for Stephen Bulger. He has a tremendous moral compass as a human being and for art, and I felt he’d be the best caretaker.”

In the meantime, no one’s waiting on Charles or Carl or Karl Maier’s 100th birthday, which falls on March 3, 2020. Recent research shows that Maier’s brother died in a New Jersey rest home in April, 1977. His 57 years were largely unhappy, it seems, marked by prolonged estrangement from his younger sister, alcoholism, addictions to gambling and morphine, stints in jail and a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. It seems, too, that he never married nor fathered children.

Under New Jersey law, a death certificate and related records are sealed for 40 years after a person dies. But it appears when Charles Maier’s are unsealed next spring they’ll contain no great revelations. “There’s like maybe a half a per cent of a chance that he had a child,” said Ann Marks, the retired New York businesswoman who’s uncovered much of the Vivian Maier story in recent years.

Marks added she’s heard “someone saw the death certificate, someone associated with the Maier matter in Chicago, and they said it said no next-of-kin.” Yet, even without the death certificate, her research has found “no documents that indicate he did [marry and have children] and most indicate that he didn’t.”

Woman in floral hat on Michigan Ave., Chicago, 1961. An Oscar-nominated 2013 documentary on Maier, titled Finding Vivian Maier, sparked considerable research that has clarified murky details of her biography.

Unlike Goldstein, Maloof opted to try to negotiate with Cook County, starting in late 2014. The result was an accord announced last month and subsequently approved by a county probate court judge. However, details of this ostensibly public document have not been released, apparently to protect “ongoing negotiations” with other owners of Maier’s work – a category that presumably would include Bulger. While the county did contact Bulger by e-mail on Thursday, the dealer described “the last-minute proposal” as being, on initial inspection, “not much different from what was proposed last September … I also want some proof that they’re actually representing the family of Vivian Maier.”

However, as Marks observed: “Cook County didn’t seem interested in pursuing any of the out-of-the-country relatives on either side of Vivian’s family. And they haven’t been keen on that for a long time … They were interested in making the agreement locally and that’s what they did.”

Bulger was offered a contract, by e-mail, with Cook County’s public administrator last September. He was reluctant to discuss details, however, saying only that he quickly rejected the contract because, to his mind, “they wanted me to assume all costs and risks while [they would be] keeping the lion’s share of profit.”

Earlier this month, the dealer was contacted by a Canadian lawyer representing Cook County who warned him about his then-upcoming Maier exhibition, saying how Cook County “owns everything I own and that I can’t do anything with it until I work out an arrangement with them.” Bulger assured the lawyer that, to avoid any taint of copyright infringement, he had no intention of selling the photographs he would be displaying.

“I told him … I’ve commissioned someone to make ‘personal use’ photographs and I am going to display them at my gallery free of charge, with no admission. I don’t even have any more Maier books to sell. I won’t be making anything out of this.”

Bulger also won’t be taking any orders, accepting deposits or writing invoices in the eventuality of a future sale. The only thing he would be “stupid not to do is if someone says, ‘Wow, I really like that picture,’ to say, ‘Well, what’s your name and number and hopefully before I die I can talk to you.’”

Chicago, 1961-65. David C. Deal began digging into Maier’s past after becoming concerned that individuals with no family connection to the photographer were making money from prints struck from the negatives bought in 2007.

Like many observers of things Maier, Bulger remains keen to see the details of the Maloof-Cook County deal, if only to have a sort of benchmark for how his own negotiations might unfold. Maloof and Cook County continue to stay mum.

However, it’s clear from the statements each released after the accord was reached that the county intends to stay very much in the bullish Maier market. It will eschew sussing out potential heirs – for the time being at least – while licensing Maloof to process and catalogue those “hundreds upon hundreds” of 35-mm rolls, mostly colour, he was given after Maier’s death by the Chicago family that had employed her as a nanny. Said the Cook County public administrator: “[We] look forward to a continuing collaboration with Mr. Maloof in promoting Ms. Maier’s remarkable work.”

For his part, Bulger is striving to ride the up-beat. He’s pleased, for example, that the growing body of Maier scholarship is helping dispel earlier characterizations of her as this almost mentally unstable, near-otherworldly creature. Today, she’s being seen increasingly as this dedicated artist, expert and exceptional, no more eccentric than any other artist, who arranged her life in such a way as to best pursue that art.

“Twenty years from now, Vivian’s work is still going to be around,” said Bulger, “and none of us are going to be remembered. It’s just going to be Vivian and really, who’s going to care about all this stuff?”

Vivian Maier: Meaning Without Context is at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto through Sept. 10 (