article by By RANDY KENNEDY
The story of the street photographer Vivian Maier has always been tangled — she worked much of her life as a nanny, keeping her artistic life a secret, and only after she died in 2009, at the age of 83, nearly penniless and with no family, were her pictures declared to be among the most remarkable of the 20th century. Now a court case in Chicago seeking to name a previously unknown heir is threatening to tie her legacy in knots and could prevent her work from being seen again for years.
The case was filed in June by a former commercial photographer and lawyer, David C. Deal, who said he became fascinated with Maier’s life in law school and took it upon himself to try to track down an heir. He did so, he said, because he was upset that prints of her work — from more than 100,000 negatives found in a storage locker at an auction, containing images now possibly worth millions of dollars — were being sold by people who came to own the negatives but had no family connection to Maier, who spent most of her childhood in France and worked in Chicago, where she died.
“I was, for 20 years, a commercial freelance photographer, and then became a lawyer,” said Mr. Deal, who practices in Orange, Va. “And, as a photographer and an attorney, the situation bothered me, so I decided to do some research on it.”
Chief among the owners of Maier’s work is John Maloof, a former real estate agent in Chicago who bought tens of thousands of the negatives for less than $400 in 2007 and has spent years tending and promoting her work through commercial galleries, museum exhibitions, books and a recent documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” that he helped direct. Mr. Maloof hired genealogists to find heirs to Maier in France and eventually paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to her work to a man named Sylvain Jaussaud, whom experts identified as her closest relative, a first cousin once removed.
But Mr. Deal hired his own genealogists and last year traveled to Gap, an alpine town in southeastern France, home of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant whom he believes to be another first cousin once removed.
Mr. Baille, who had no idea he was related to Maier, agreed with Mr. Deal to seek to be recognized as her heir under American law. Reached on Friday by phone in France, Mr. Baille said, “For now, I just do not want to talk about this.” But his French lawyer, Denis Compigne, said: “It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.”
The legal case to determine whether Mr. Baille is Maier’s closest relative has now set in motion a process that Chicago officials say could take years and could result in Maier’s works’ being pulled from gallery inventories and museum shows until a determination is made.
The state public administrator’s office for Cook County, in Chicago, which is charged with overseeing estates until relatives or others are approved by the courts to do so, created an estate for Maier on July 1 and has sent letters to Mr. Maloof and others who sell her work — prints can cost more than $2,000 apiece — warning them of possible lawsuits over Maier’s assets. The Stephen Bulger Gallery, in Toronto, which lists dozens of Maier prints on its website, received a letter on Aug. 19 from a Chicago law firm, Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, representing the estate, asking it to preserve all documents related to her work and its sale.
“We are investigating the potential misuse and infringement of copyrighted works whose rights are held by the estate,” the letter said, adding that the firm anticipated “filing litigation against the responsible parties upon completion of our investigation.” An exhibition of her work is on view at the Toronto gallery.
Maier somehow managed to pursue her photographic work with a single-minded zeal while taking care of the children of wealthy families, starting in the 1950s, taking to the streets of Chicago and New York with a medium-format Rolleiflex. At her death, much of her work was left unprinted, but, as it was publicized by Mr. Maloof and others, critics began to compare her empathetic, witty, sometimes searing gaze to that of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Weegee. Roberta Smith, in The New York Times, said that her pictures “may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Maloof said that he and those he works with to sell her work — a small battalion that includes printmakers, as well as the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York — are now in limbo, waiting for the advice of lawyers about whether they can continue to sell it or provide it to museums and publishers. This year alone, there have been more than a dozen exhibitions of her work at museums and commercial galleries in the United States and in Europe.
Under federal copyright law, owning a photograph’s negative or a print is distinct from owning the copyright itself. The copyright owner controls whether images can be reproduced and sold.
Mr. Maloof said that he had been working for more than a year to register copyright to the images on the negatives he owns, based on his agreement with the man he believes to be Maier’s rightful heir, but that the copyright applications were still pending. (In his own research, he said, he too found the name of Mr. Baille, but he came to believe, based on the advice of his genealogists and lawyers, that Mr. Jaussaud was legally the closest heir.)
“I’ve been obsessed since the beginning with trying to find out who Vivian Maier was and whether she had heirs,” Mr. Maloof said. “I was always trying to do what was as legally and ethically aboveboard as possible.”
As for the possibility that the legal case could cause Maier’s work to drop from sight, he said: “It’s kind of sad. I have a very emotional attachment to her work and I’m very protective of it. And I’ve never let anything happen to it that’s not been of the highest quality.”
He said that he had begun to make money on her archive only this year, after several years of putting much of his own money into preserving, scanning and promoting the work.
Mr. Deal said he believed it was “profoundly unfair” that Mr. Maloof and other owners of Maier’s work were profiting from it instead of her heirs. (The other major owner of Maier’s work, Jeffrey Goldstein of Chicago, has 17,500 negatives. Mr. Goldstein said on Friday that he had terminated agreements with the galleries that sell the work he owns and that they would stop selling it by the end of Friday.)
“None of these guys have legal copyright,” Mr. Deal added. “What they’re doing is breaking federal law. ”
As for what Mr. Baille hoped to gain from the court case, Mr. Deal said, “He has no interest in this other than being compensated in the way that he is legally obligated to be.”
Asked whether he had an agreement with Mr. Baille about having a role in an eventual estate, or whether he hoped to profit from the estate himself, Mr. Deal said: “I’ve dramatically reduced the going rate for defending my client and I’ve put a lot of my own money into this. If I came out on the other end of this issue breaking even, I would take it, because I think it’s likely to be the most interesting thing I’m ever going to work on in my legal career.”
Joanne Zlotek, the general counsel for the public administrator’s office in Chicago, said that estate cases like Maier’s, especially ones complicated by potential relatives who are not United States citizens, can sometimes take several years to be resolved. The letters putting galleries and others on notice, she said, “were a fail-safe, to let everyone know that this is what the situation is and that an estate for Vivian Maier now exists.”
Doreen Carvajal contributed reporting from Paris, and Mitch Smith from Chicago.