Peter Max | Estate Litigation Battles for Art Riches
Peter Max is a countercultural icon, a painter whose art defined an era of rebellion, freedom, youth, and nonconformity. Because his psychedelic style was so recognizable, he became a wealthy celebrity artist in the 1980s who earned the right to be compared to other pop cultural artists of our time including Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst. His work appeared on cereal boxes, airplanes, postage stamps, and cruise ships.
Even though Peter Max became an extremely successful and wealthy artist, in the late 1990’s he ran into financial troubles and pled guilty to tax evasion. Those troubles ultimately led Max to partner with a company called Park West Gallery which sells art at auctions held on cruise ships including Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian. Nostalgic baby boomers are the primary buyers of the art, where some of Max’s paintings have sold for as much as $30,000. Through the Park West Gallery, Max resurrected his career and earned millions of dollars.
In the process of rebuilding his fortunes, Max also rebuilt his life. He counted Ringo Starr as one of his friends, and when he married his second wife, Mary Balkin, 30 years his junior, their wedding was officiated by then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani.
As the demand for his work increased, Max painted feverishly to keep up and was so prolific that he filled a warehouse in New Jersey with art. But at the age of 75, in 2012, at a time when he should have been enjoying the fruits of his labor, Max began to experience progressively worse signs of Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. That’s when his troubles began anew.
The Peter Max art business is owned by Max and his two grown children from his first marriage, Adam and Libra, each of whom held a 40% stake. As Peter Max’s faculties and productivity began to decline, Adam Max took over financial responsibility for the studio in 2012, at which point the business defaulted on $5.4 million in bank loans. Then Hurricane Sandy hit in the Fall of 2012, which flooded Max’s New Jersey warehouse and led to a $300 million flood insurance claim. Max apparently hired an insurance agent and an accountant to manage his finances, and together with Adam Max the three took over the business and decided to ramp up production of Max paintings that would be sold at cruise ship auctions. The problem, of course, was that Peter Max was unable to paint. The New York Times reported that to deal with that issue, the three businessmen hired 18 assistant painters to create original artwork which Max would then sign.
As Peter Max’s dementia became worse, his wife Mary petitioned the Supreme Court of the State of New York to appoint a guardian to oversee her husband’s business. In response, Adam Max took his father to an undisclosed location. His stepmother claims Adam kidnapped Peter. Peter said he took his father to protect him from his stepmother’s verbal and physical abuse. Was the stepmother physically and verbally abusive? Again, according to the New York Times, “Several sworn affidavits described Ms. Max as a neglectful, even punishing, figure in her husband’s life – a view that even came to be supported by the guardian she had sought to appoint.” In a situation like this, it’s hard to know who to root for.
Meanwhile, as his health declined, sales of Peter Max’s art began to boom. Between 2012 and 2018, Park West’s cruise ship auctions generated more than $93 million in sales; net profit in 2018 alone was $30 million.
Predictably, with all that money on the line, the family saga went to the courts. Libra Max and Max’s guardian removed Adam from the company business and named her as the President and Chief Executive. Libra then filed lawsuits against her brother to restrain him from further involvement with the company, and also against his business partners to terminate their business agreements. Libra also fired many of the assistant painters in an effort to bring the studio back to “her father’s vision.” Earlier this year, she also filed a lawsuit against Park West Gallery, alleging that they took 23,000 works of her father’s for which they paid $14.7 million against what is claimed as a true value of at least $100 million. Park West has countersued claiming breach of contract.
As with other high-profile celebrity cases we’ve profiled, Peter Max’s situation stems from friction between a much younger stepmother (in this case, for all intents and purposes a widow – even though Max is still alive) and at least one stepchild.
So was Peter Max systematically exploited by his son and business associates once he became mentally incapacitated – a case of elder financial abuse? Or was Peter Max’s wife physically and verbally abusive – a case of elder abuse? Neither situation is tenable – these are questions that courts may yet decide.
For the moment, Peter Max is at his home, cared for by his wife, daughter, and a court-appointed guardian. He is reportedly oblivious to all the drama surrounding his life and legacy and is said to be happily enjoying his Manhattan apartment and the art, much of it his own, that fills the walls. All we can do is wish him well.
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