Untitled (Sunshine Biscuits) was among the Vivian Maier photos in Corbett vs. Dempsey's 2012 exhibit.
Untitled (Sunshine Biscuits) was among the Vivian Maier photos in Corbett vs. Dempsey's 2012 exhibit. Credit: Courtesy Ron Slattery

In 2007, when the contents of Vivian Maier’s storage lockers were sold off at a Portage Park auction house, Ron Slattery was one of three major winning bidders for boxes that turned out to contain the life’s work of a remarkable photographer.

Most of Maier’s stash of more than 100,000 negatives, along with slides, undeveloped
film, and a smaller number of prints, wound up in the hands of two other collectors, John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein.

But Slattery, who collects and deals in vintage photographs (and maintains a website, bighappyfunhouse.com, for the quirky “vernacular” shots that are his specialty), got several thousand negatives and several thousand prints, mostly small pictures—three-by-three inches, for example. The prints included some made by Maier and many others that had been printed for her at drugstores or camera shops.

Maier died in poverty in 2009, but under the stewardship of Maloof and Goldstein—and thanks to the Internet—she’s had a rocket ride to posthumous fame that was the subject of a column I wrote for the Reader last month. While Maloof and Goldstein have presided over a blitz of Vivian Maier books, films, exhibits, and media coverage, Slattery’s kept a relatively low profile. He made a brief appearance in a BBC documentary, Who Took Nanny’s Pictures (released here as The Vivian Maier Mystery), and gave academic researcher Pamela Bannos access to his collection, but mostly shied away from the spotlight.

In April 2012, however, Slattery turned 56 of his Vivian Maier photographs over to John Corbett and Jim Dempsey’s much-loved Wicker Park gallery, Corbett vs. Dempsey, for an exhibit and sale that opened in June, ran through December 2012—and culminated in a lawsuit in which Slattery is seeking damages of more than $2 million.

Vivian Maier's <i>Untitled (Woman in coat and hat on bench)</i>, another of the exhibit's photos from the collection of Ron Slattery
Vivian Maier’s Untitled (Woman in coat and hat on bench), another of the exhibit’s photos from the collection of Ron SlatteryCredit: Courtesy Ron Slattery

What happened?

Slattery’s Vivian Maier prints were mostly priced in the range of $5,000 to $6,000 at the gallery (the total value of his property there was set at $307,000), and just two of them sold. He was paid 50 percent of the sale price, and the gallery, which had mounted and framed the photographs and produced and marketed the show, got the other half, as agreed. No issue there.

But according to the complaint filed on Slattery’s behalf in Cook County Court last year, when the other 54 photographs were returned to him, in early January 2013, he made an unexpected discovery: they’d all been damaged.

According to the lawsuit, the gallery had “severely damaged all 56 of the Photos by carelessly utilizing incorrect mounting and excessive amounts of hinge glue, which resulted in hinge glue soaking through the Photographs and severely distorting the images thereon.”

In addition, because of inadequate air conditioning, “the Photographs were exposed to excessive heat,” which caused the damage to be “exacerbated.”

And then, according to the complaint, there was a cover-up.

“In or about May, 2012,” the lawsuit claims, “in an effort to conceal the damage to the Photographs, and without the knowledge or consent of Plaintiff, Defendants caused 11 of the Photographs to be delivered to a local art restorer who attempted to repair and alter” them. This work was also “incorrectly” handled, according to the lawsuit, and “caused further diminution in the value of such Photographs.”

According to documents filed by the gallery’s attorney, Eric Vander Arend, after the photographs had been sent out for mounting and framing, the gallery discovered that the hinge tape used to mount the photographs “had the potential to (1) be seen as a very slight bump in the front surface . . . and (2) if not removed by a paper conservator, lift a portion of the backing.”

Corbett (an occasional Reader contributor) and Dempsey also admit in filings that in January 2013, “upon or shortly after return of the unsold Maier Photographs,” the gallery informed Slattery of both the “potential” problem with the “hinge” and the restoration they had had done by “a third-party conservator” (who was paid $1,275 for her work).

In an additional document, Corbett and Dempsey note that another restorer, Joel Oppenheimer Inc., has estimated that $8,700 will cover the cost of repairing 53 of the photographs, and that Slattery has declined “multiple” offers by the gallery (and its insurers) to settle the suit for that amount.

“The driver in this case,” Vander Arend said in a phone interview last week, “is the extent to which, if at all, the photographs were harmed in any long-term way by what we did. What are Vivian Maier photographs worth? And what percentage of value did they lose on account of what we did? We don’t admit that the mounting affected them in any way that commercially devalues them.”

Slattery’s three-count complaint against the gallery includes charges of breach of contract and violation of the consumer fraud act. It claims that Corbett and Dempsey’s “failure to disclose the damage and alteration and attempt to conceal the damage was willful and deceptive and done with the intent that Plaintiff and others rely on such non-disclosure and deception.”

Slattery is seeking $200,000 for damages to the value of the photographs in the show and another $2 million in punitive and indirect damages to the value and marketability of the rest of Slattery’s Maier collection.

The case is scheduled for mediation next month.