One of the 20th century’s greatest collections of street photography – taken by an American nanny who died in obscurity – could be tied up in litigation for years after a previously unknown heir came forward to claim rights to her multimillion dollar legacy of more than 100,000 images.
Francis Baille, a retired civil servant from Gap in France, had no idea he was related to Vivian Maier, dubbed “Mary Poppins with a camera”, but he is now seeking to be recognised as her heir under US law.
The case, which was filed in June, could see Ms Maier’s photographs pulled from galleries and collections for years while the situation is resolved.
Ms Maier died in poverty in 2009 with no immediate family, but is now seen as a photographer on a par with Henri Cartier-Bresson. She took pictures of her native France with a Rolleiflex camera and then the streets of Chicago and New York, but never published her work.
John Maloof, a former estate agent, owns about 90 per cent of her known work after he bought a box of negatives for $380 shortly before she died. The images prompted him to track down a first cousin once removed called Sylvain Jaussaud using genealogists. Mr Maloof paid Mr Jaussaud for the rights to her work and has since sought to register copyright on the images. He also co-directed a documentary called Finding Vivian Maier.
However, ownership of the images has been thrown into doubt by the lawsuit filed by David Deal, a former photographer turned lawyer.
Mr Deal said he was unhappy that the photographs should be sold by people unconnected with Ms Maier and had decided to track down her nearest relative. “As a photographer and an attorney, the situation bothered me, so I decided to do some research on it,” he told The New York Times.
His research led to Mr Baille, who Mr Deal believes is a closer relative than Mr Jaussaud. Mr Baille’s lawyer said: “You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew… [and] this precious legacy.”
The case has gone to the public administrator’s office for Cook County, Chicago, which created an estate for Ms Maier in July. Those selling the photographer’s work have been contacted by law firms warning them about possible lawsuits.
Mr Maloof has been left in limbo, until he receives legal advice on what can be done with the pictures. He too found the name of Mr Baille but believed that Mr Jaussaud was the closest heir, saying: “I was always trying to do what was as legally and ethically above board as possible.”Reuse content