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Surrealistic art at stake in storage dispute

Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 5:22 p.m.

A fight over a high-value collection of paintings left behind by a Mill Valley artist has splashed onto Sonoma County's legal canvas.

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Extreme Circumstances is one of 61 paintings by the late Marin County artist Norman Stiegelmeyer that are the focus of a Sonoma County lawsuit.

Jason Stiegelmeyer of Petaluma, the son of the late visionary surrealist Norman Stiegelmeyer, has sued in Superior Court for the return of 61 colorful pieces up for grabs in a storage dispute.

Stiegelmeyer contends an ex-employer, contractor Brian Heim, also of Petaluma, agreed to keep the work in exchange for payments of one painting per month, which Heim valued at $100 each.

When Stiegelmeyer attempted to retrieve the art two months later, Heim refused, insisting he was owed for a minimum of 12 months plus moving fees totaling 39 paintings.

Heim has since sold two or three of the works. “Extreme Circumstances” and “Mental Landcape,” both painted in the 1960s, fetched a combined $18,400 last year at a Los Angeles auction.

Art experts and Stiegelmeyer's lawyer, Joseph C. Tinney, agreed the entire collection is worth about $300,000. Norman Stiegelmeyer died in 1984.

“The guy has talent,” said Robert Green, a Mill Valley gallery owner for the past 44 years. “There is certainly money there.”

This week, Superior Court Judge Arthur Wick granted Stiegelmeyer's request for a preliminary injunction, blocking further sales until the dispute is resolved.

Wick said in his ruling that Heim “reaped a windfall over his initial $100 valuation.”

“The paintings have sold for many times that amount,” Wick wrote. “As the paintings sell, they become out of reach of the defendant and presumably this court.”

Both sides are due back in court Dec. 20. A trial date has not been set.

Heim declined a request to be interviewed. His lawyer, Delphine Adams, said Heim was upholding an oral contract initiated by Stiegelmeyer, who had fallen into arrears in his previous storage arrangement.

Adams said Stiegelmeyer was at risk of losing the paintings in 2009 when he was unable to pay $800 in back fees to North Bay Self Storage.

He approached Heim, who hired him as a construction laborer, and asked if he would keep the paintings at his house, Adams said.

Heim said he would but he didn't want money. Instead, he asked Stiegelmeyer for a painting a month for at least one year, she said.

Stiegelmeyer balked at the terms at first but finally agreed. He and one of Heim's other employees spent more than a day moving the cumbersome pieces as well as 16 boxes of drawings, a service Heim estimated cost him $300 an hour, the lawyer said.

Two months later, in June 2009, when Stiegelmeyer came for the paintings, Heim said he would release all but 39, Adams said.

Stiegelmeyer complained to police but no criminal charges were filed.

A year later, Heim sent Stiegelmeyer a letter advising him the year was up. Stiegelmeyer didn't respond and Heim auctioned two works, Adams said.

She said Heim had no idea what the paintings were worth or who Norman Stiegelmeyer was before reaching the agreement. He caught only a brief glimpse of pieces before they were moved, she said.

“The terms of the contract were the terms of the contract and my client fully performed on those terms,” Adams said.

But Stiegelmeyer contends Heim did know the value of the paintings and took advantage of an indigent man with a “harsh, unfair and unconscionable” storage agreement.

Also, he said Heim sold other works for unknown amounts and refuses to reveal their location.

His suit seeks compensation for the collection in excess of $100,000 along with punitive damages and interest.

“We know he's selling the paintings,” Tinney said in court. “All we want is an injunction. The harm to the plaintiff is obvious.”

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