Who Owns an Artist's Legacy? The Tangled Tale of Theodoros Stamos

Who Owns an Artist's Legacy? The Tangled Tale of Theodoros Stamos
Detail of Theodoros Stamos's "White Field VII," 1961
(Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum)

An Abstract Expressionist artist most remembered for his questionable dealings with the Mark Rothko estate is now, ironically, at the center of a bitter dispute surrounding his own legacy. A good friend of Rothko, Theodoros Stamos was one of three people named as executors of the painter’s estate when he committed suicide in 1970. He and his cohorts were found guilty of negligence and conflict of interest after selling a number of paintings to Marlborough Gallery at an unusually high discount. Forty years later, his own estate is in locked in a trans-Atlantic legal back-and-forth. 

Stamos's sister and several of his former dealers and friends are tangled up in litigation in both Greek and the U.S. courts, duking it out with collector Zacharias Georgiou Portalakis over ownership of the late artist’s copyrights and the authenticity of a number of his artworks. The complicated dispute, which has lasted over three years in Greece and recently expanded to the United States, illustrates just how messy it is to sort out an artist’s legacy when no rules or executors are set in stone before his death.

“When an artist dies, there is a dealer or there is an estate which has X amount of paintings. They do shows and establish museums like the one for Clyfford Still. When Stamos died, there was nothing,” said Louis Meisel, an art dealer in New York who temporarily represented Stamos and owns a number of his paintings. The legal messiness began way back in 1995, when an ill Stamos wrote a letter granting Portalakis, his friend and collector, the right to all his copyrights. The letter also identified him as the sole authenticator of his paintings, people familiar with the case said. "Many people in the art world believe an artist can appoint somoene as his legal authenticator. Not so," said lawyer Alan Sugarman, who has represented two of the New York dealers involved in the dispute. Stamos contradicted the letter in a will finalized before his death in 1997, granting authority over his estate to his sister Georgianna Savas and a cousin in Greece, though he said nothing of authentication.

Since then, Portalakis has obtained an order of seizure from a Greek court for two Stamos works estimated at approximately $30,000 each that were to be sold at a Greek auction house because he said they were fake, and used the letter to illustrate his authority. “Here in New York, the case would have been tossed out of court in 60 days,” said Sugarman. Back in the United States, Savas, Stamos’s sister, recently filed a $15 million claim against Portalakis in federal court to compel him to return a number of Stamos canvases, according to Courthouse News. People familiar with the case said Portalakis acquired a number of Stamos works from the family after promising to build a museum for them, but the museum was never built.