This post is a continuation of my June 27th entry, regarding my research into the Richard Amsel estate.
As I’ve mentioned, one of the reasons this project has taken me so long is that, in some ways, the very making of this documentary has shaped the narrative of Richard Amsel’s story – rather, the truth behind what happened to the artist’s work after his untimely death in late 1985. It’s a subject that possibly warrants a film in itself. While I don’t yet know exactly how much of the final cut will be dedicated to it (Will it be an epilogue? An entire fourth act?), it’s obviously a sensitive subject, and compounds the tragedy of Amsel’s premature death.
So…who is the current, proper owner of the Richard Amsel estate?
This was the big question I had posed to my attorney, Harriet Beck, after years of digging and trying to substantiate some of the claims I’d heard over the years from different people. To answer that, Harriet, bless her, started by explaining two important legal clarifications:
First, there is a significant difference between owning an original Amsel illustration, and owning the intellectual property rights to that illustration. Contrary to widespread belief, the former does not justify the other. When one considers how many different people throughout the world have collected Amsel’s works over the years (myself included), it’s ludicrous to think that simply owning an original would, by default, allow that owner to claim copyright ownership, too.
Second, the transferal of intellectual property rights, including copyright, from one person to another would require a written agreement to be considered legal. In Amsel’s case, this means that such a written agreement would have to be made either directly with Amsel himself while he was alive, or by the Amsel estate following his death. (Note: I’m reducing this issue to its simplest terms, as they apply to the specific legalities of this case.)
Many of Amsel’s completed illustrations selected for publication often fell under the copyright ownership of the respective hiring company. (For example, Amsel’s RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK posters fall under Lucasfilm Ltd. and Paramount Pictures.) But what of Amsel’s untold number of unpublished sketches and personal works?
Years ago, I obtained a copy of Richard Amsel’s will, which was prepared and legalized a week before his death, while he was hospitalized at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Over the years I’ve corresponded with one of the will’s designated witnesses (Judy Goldman), as well as the attorney who prepared it.
In this will, Amsel disowned his family, and designated Gary Bralow as both the executor of his estate, and as its sole beneficiary.
So…who is Gary Bralow?
Photos of Gary Bralow courtesy of Judy Goldman.
Gary Sander Bralow (1946-1990) was one of Amsel’s closest friends, dating back to their time as classmates at The Philadelphia College of Art (since rebranded The University of the Arts) from 1965-1969. They remained so until Amsel’s death.
Throughout the interviews I conducted, I heard several testimonials about the nature of Amsel’s and Bralow’s relationship. They were one time lovers, yes, but classifying them as “boyfriends” wouldn’t necessarily be accurate. “Friends”, too, seems too understated and limiting a word. The two reportedly had their fights and falling outs from time to time, as even the best of friends can, but always eventually mended. Suffice to say, these two men remained an important, integral part of each other’s lives, and that Amsel should entrust Bralow, above all others, with his creative legacy is testament to the bond of that friendship.
Gary Bralow is, without question, an unsung hero behind Richard Amsel’s legacy. He was a talented illustrator in his own right, with work published in magazines and on album covers – particularly opera and classical albums, as he was a fervent opera aficionado. But Bralow also fought to keep Amsel’s work together, wanting to have an eventual book made of Amsel’s work. He reportedly was heartbroken by having so many of Amsel’s originals sold off at auction, a necessary evil to help satisfy the late artist’s outstanding tax debts.
Above: One of Bralow's personal illustrations, provided by Howard Feinberg.
Above: Some album covers featuring Bralow's illustrations.
These challenges to preserve Amsel’s work were particularly bittersweet. Bralow struggled with his own declining health from AIDS complications, and succumbed to the disease in April 1990 – another victim who died far, far too young. Having put so much of his own illustration career on hold in favor of properly archiving and promoting the work of his late friend, Gary Bralow’s efforts on behalf of Richard Amsel’s legacy can not be overstated. It was a sacrifice that we should be forever greatful.
Now…let’s fast-forward twenty-five years…
In June 2015, while in the early stages of prepping work on the documentary, I tried gathering more information on Gary Bralow. I was given a few names of known relatives, but wasn’t sure which of them might still be alive. Nor where, exactly, I might find them.
I eventually learned that Bralow’s parents and sister had passed. There was only one name I had left as a lead – Howard Feinberg, Gary Bralow’s nephew. I reached out to Feinberg through LinkedIn (social media be praised), and rather awkwardly introduced myself:
Howard, forgive me, but I wanted to ask if you were related to the late Gary Bralow. I've been researching a project, and would love to chat with you, if you are the correct contact. …
And so the plot thickened. Howard and I soon struck up a conversation over the phone, and he shared some of his memories – both of his late uncle, and Richard, whom he had met a number of times.
“He (Gary) and I were reasonably close, especially as I got older," Howard said. "Thinking back on my history, as I grew up and spent time in New York City with him and with some of his friends. I remember an individual, Richard Amsel. Didn’t know him all that well but I do remember meeting him and seeing him in different places… I just remember Richard, and I remember the name and I remember my uncle always talking fondly about him and sharing his artwork, and just some of the movie posters he did. …
“I think that my uncle, as much as he was enamored with Richard as a person, was also enamored with Richard as an artist. As he used to share some of the movie posters or some of the covers of TV Guide that he did… it was just… there was a lot of pride that you could see when he spoke of Richard the person as well as Richard the artist.”
I decided to drop a potential bombshell. “You could conceivably be the rightful heir to the Richard Amsel estate,” I told him.
To my astonishment, Howard didn’t seem to take the news with great surprise. It was something he and his family had been wondering about, ever since Bralow’s death a quarter-century before.
Despite the Christie’s East auction in 1987, where many of Amsel’s most iconic works were sold off, Bralow still maintained a large collection of his late friend’s work within his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Yet when Bralow eventually died, so much happened with the Amsel collection that it was hard for Bralow’s family to keep track. Some pieces in Gary’s house were passed through different hands, while others seemingly “disappeared” outright.
Howard was only in his late teens when Amsel died, and his early twenties when this uncle passed. The tragedy of it all overwhelmed his family, who were too busy grieving to properly grapple with what exactly had happened to Gary’s collection of Amsel’s originals.
This much is certain: As Gary Bralow did not leave behind a written will, nor any written probate agreements, it is now Bralow’s closest surviving family – in this case, Howard – who is the rightful legal heir to the Richard Amsel estate.
And in the 33 years since Gary’s death, no one has ever reached out to the family about the proper ownership and legal control of Richard Amsel’s work.
This information might be a lot to take in, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. It has involved years of research, including in-person reviews of probate records in New York City and Doylestown, Pennsylvania, endless phone calls, emails, and, of course, a few politely worded inquiries from my attorney.
As for the rest…that is another story. And it is still being written.
I remain forever grateful to Howard Feinberg for his friendship and enduring support of this project.