In this Sept. 24, 2013, file photo, artist Robert Indiana, known for his "LOVE" artwork series, poses in front of that painting at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Credit: Lauren Casselberry / AP

Months after a federal court decided reproduction rights of Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” artwork, the late artists’ estate will be back in court arguing a similar case pertaining to his “HOPE” artwork.

At issue are two contracts — one from 2019 and one from 2008 — that created different rules about how disputes would be settled.

A new ruling by a federal appeals court that was issued Monday overturns a lower court decision from last year.  

This is the latest in a lawsuit filed in July 2020 by New York-based art publisher, Michael McKenzie, who collaborated with Indiana to create the late artist’s “HOPE” series of artwork. The lawsuit alleged the artist’s estate was ignoring the terms of a 2019 agreement. Instead, the estate was following a 2008 contract that indicated contract disputes should be resolved through arbitration ― an alternative form of legally binding conflict resolution ― rather than in court. 

A federal judge in Maine ruled last year that arbitrators should decide whether arbitration was the right process to determine how the contract dispute should be handled. Monday’s ruling from the first circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals reverses that previous decision.

The matter must now go back before a federal district court judge to determine if the 2019 agreement cancels out a 2008 contract and if the dispute should be resolved through arbitration or be handled in court.

“We’re pleased. We think it’s the right decision and we look forward to being in district court to get this matter resolved much more efficiently than the arbitration can do so,” said John Markham, the attorney representing McKenzie and his company, American Image Art.

Indiana, known for his iconic “LOVE” series, died at the age of 89 on May 19, 2018, at his home, the Star of Hope. He’s internationally known for his pop-art style and had been living in Maine since the late 1970s.

Since his death, the late artist’s estate has been working to resolve a litany of legal disputes. The estate  has recently come under fire from the Maine attorney general’s office for how much has been spent on legal fees while fighting these disputes.

The attorney general’s office claims the estate overpaid several law firms a total of $3.7 million in legal fees. The attorney general is asking the estate’s executor, Rockland attorney James Brannan to get that money back from the firms it was paid to and give it to the late artists’ charitable foundation, the Star of Hope.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to comment on Monday’s ruling or offer an update on the office’s attempt to get the overpaid legal fees returned to the Star of Hope.

The day before Indiana died, he was named in a lawsuit filed by Morgan Art Foundation in New York federal court, which alleged that Indiana’s caretaker on Vinalhaven and McKenzie were isolating the artist and creating fraudulent work. The estate settled its lawsuit with Morgan Art Foundation this summer resolving the copyright issues surrounding his “LOVE” artwork.

However, the Morgan Art Foundation and McKenzie have yet to reach an agreement.

When reached for comment Tuesday morning, Brannan said he had yet to fully go through Monday’s ruling.

“We will do what the judge tells us,” Brannan said. “I would just say we’re doing what lawyers do and we’re trying to get this all resolved. I would say this is a little bit of a setback, yes, in that regard.”