Original Art Stories: Miller vs Varley - Frank Miller's Art Collection

More documents have landed in the what's rapidly becoming a nasty battle between Frank Miller and his ex-wife, colourist Lynn Varley (read here for a recap). Without getting into the nastier details of the dispute, it can be broken down to the following; 

1] Miller and Varley agreed to separate and split their art collection. As part of the settlement ($1,320,000 to Varley from Miller), sales of art from either side to third parties was subject to a series of rules. 

2] All of Miller's art was catalogued and stored in a unit, to which both Miller and Varley's legal representatives had the keys. Either party could inspect the art at any time, but had to be accompanied by the other, or their representative.

3] Miller had strict rules against selling any of his art until Varley had received the final settlement payment. His art was being held as security against the payment. Miller could sell his art, but had to offer it to Varley first. If she wanted it, she could pay a 'fair market price' and buy the artwork. If the offer was accepted, then the price of the art would be taken off any amounts still outstanding to Varley.

4] After the settlement payment was complete, Miller could sell any of his art, but had to offer it to Varley first, if it was art that Varley had worked on (i.e: coloured). 

5] In order to prevent the market from being flooded by Miller art, Varley was permitted to sell no more than eighty pieces of Miller art per year, and Miller was limited to seventy pieces. Again, once the settlement was complete, both parties were limited to seventy pieces per year.

Sounds simple? Not really, but divorces rarely are. There was a lot more involved, properties, pension plans, assets - the usual stuff, but, in this case, there was big money involved (hence the $1,320,000 settlement). But the art has now become a subject of the classic "he said, she said". Varley now claims that Miller is attempting to re-litigate the divorce, nine years after it happened. On the other hand, Miller is claiming that Varley has stolen art by secreting it prior to 2008 when the couple split and failing to disclose it when the divorce was finally settled three years later in 2011.

As per Miller's claims:

Plaintiff is an acclaimed, multiple award-winning American comic book writer and artist. Plaintiff brought this action seeking (i) to recover certain preliminary sketches of panel composition that were illegally and secretly taken from him by Defendant, his ex-wife, (the “Roughs”), and which Defendant has attempted to sell, literally “under the table” through her art dealer, and (ii) to enforce Plaintiff’s right to inspect certain piece of his artwork allocated to Defendant by the couple’s divorce settlement. For Plaintiff, the Roughs are a piece of his legacy, as they represent an essential step in his writing and illustrating processes, through which he created groundbreaking comic works, seminal in the history of that medium.

In moving to dismiss, Defendant does not deny that she secretly took the Roughs or that she concealed for years the fact that she had them. Rather, she contends that, because Plaintiff was unaware that Defendant had the Roughs when their separation agreement was signed, she effectively tricked him into giving up his rights to claim them once Defendant’s theft came to light. That obviously is not the law, and Defendant’s arguments accordingly fail.

It's the following paragraphs that are the most damming and, if proved to be true, certainly does expose some of the more dubious practices of the world of art collecting.

Nevertheless, sometime before entering into the SPSA (Separation and Property Settlement Agreement), Defendant secretly, and without Plaintiff’s permission, took a large quantity of Plaintiff’s preliminary sketches (the Roughs) from the cooperative apartment that had been the couple’s marital residence and/or their shared storage unit. At all times prior to and during the negotiation of the SPSA, including when determining what artwork would be included in the Schedule A inventory, Defendant failed to disclose to Plaintiff that she had secretly taken and was in possession of the Roughs. At the time he executed the SPSA, Plaintiff reasonably believed that the Roughs were securely stored in the marital residence or their shared storage unit and so would remain his property under Paragraph 5.4(g) of the SPSA.

Following the divorce, Defendant continued to conceal the fact that she had taken the Roughs. Until at least May 2019, Defendant concealed her possession of the Roughs and directed her art agent Mitch Itkowitz (“Itkowitz”) not to openly display the Roughs in the same manner that he would display piece from Varley’s Artworks to potential buyers. 

Then, in May 2019, Itkowitz displayed certain Roughs at a comic art convention held outside the United States at Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy. It was then that Plaintiff was first alerted that Defendant had secretly taken the Roughs and was attempting to sell them without his permission. Neither Plaintiff nor anyone representing him had ever before seen Itkowitz display any of the Roughs at any of the numerous comic book conventions mutually attended in the years prior to 2019.

Later that year, in July 2019, at the San Diego Comic Convention International, Itkowitz again offered Roughs for sale to potential collectors. However, now in the U.S., Itkowitz kept the Roughs out of sight from the general public -- in a separate binder kept literally under the table -- and only displayed them for potential buyers if they were specifically requested. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff’s attorneys sent a letter to Defendant’s attorney demanding, inter alia, return of the Roughs (the “Demand Letter”). Defendant refused, and has continued to refuse, to relinquish the Roughs.

(Frank Miller's Memorandum of Law)

Miller is now claiming that the art was stolen and sold, circumventing the conditions that were in place as per the settlement, that Miller could inspect any his art in Varley's collection, and vice versa. Varley is contending that the agreement was finished when the settlement was complete. Miller's claims that the art is/was rightfully his as he created it, Varley's claims are that the art wasn't identified at the time of the divorce (and thus not registered on the document you're about to see) so Miller has no claim. 

Varley is also not denying that she took the art, in fact, from reading the documents, it appears that she admits it. That point is being hammered by Miller's lawyers.

As for who is right and who is wrong, that'll be for the courts to decide, if it goes that far. A trial was set, but, with the current conditions in place thanks to Covid-19, it might be a long, long time before this one is resolved. You would hope that they could sit down and sort it out, but then we're not privy to the personalities and conflicts that exist here. More information will come to light in the coming months and

In the meantime, clap your eyes on this list, all fifty three pages of it. This is the list of the art that was in Miller and Varley's possession in 2011. Those pieces listed with a 'L' were considered to belong to Lynn Varley, the rest was Frank Millers. Now this is an art collection to die for. Miller is sitting on a treasure trove here. Ronin, Dark Knight, Elektra, Sin City...and art by many of his collaborators.

One thing is certain, Frank Miller will never go broke.


Manqueman said…
As you say, Daniel, this is a treasure trove; Varley's set for life, Miller more so.
But a caveat to this post: America's legal system is based on advocates promoting, as it were, competing scenarios (rarely in full agreement) and the truth is wherever it might be. In this case, who knows exactly, and if anyone does, maybe it's reflected in the submissions, maybe not.
That said, as someone who, over the decades has inventoried stuff and played with numbers, this is a huge amount of stuff; mistakes can happen. What happened in Sandy Eggo* maybe was some awful deliberate screwing of Miller, maybe just a salesman's hype to get their client maximum moolah. (*H/t Doc V.)
And back to the litigation: Another factor: Let's say all of Miller's attorney"s claims are correct, what's the harm? Art's still there to be sold. Given Miller's rep at present and in the short term, he'd likely get more money now than a year or two ago. One might therefor suspect that this is not a good faith proceeding but an attempt to abuse Varley. (As for the abuse, other litigation involving Miller suggests that that is a possibility.)
And now that I think about it, I'm not sure that Varley's all that set given the expenses of litigation on this level. Which, I dunno, bothers me. I mean, even if Team Miller's 100% correct in its claims, dunno that this proceeding is necessary other than, again, abuse (enabled, of course, by attorneys who need their fees).
Kid said…
She admits she took it and that she concealed the fact at the time and subsequently, until she was found out.

Clear-cut case of ex-wife thinking that she's entitled to what belongs to her ex-husband, even if obtained dishonestly.
Manqueman said…
Kid, even if she took it, my secondary point was what was the harm. No damages to Miller (or Miller Inc.), it's a frivolous case and some sort of abusive act. At the time at issue up to now, I can't imagine there's any damage to Miller other than probably being ripped off by high priced attorneys. So as a matter of law in New York, even if Varley was completely in the wrong, no damages sustained by Miller means it's a frivolous action. Merit alone isn't enough.
Unknown said…
Since she admitted taking it there is a penalty that the monies she received for the ruffs Should be his. That was the ag\agreement by Law !!
She hid the fact which is even worse. They have proof from the San Diego Show.

If that was You and you were the creator I am sure your attitude would be different instead of "frivolous" law suit as you say. Also, why should he Not get the money that was part of Their Agreement ??

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