Jul 25, 2023

Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts wants protection from Disfarmer discovery

The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation has requested a protective order against discovery from Fred Stewart, special administrator of the estate of Mike Disfarmer, an eccentric Heber Springs photographer who died in 1959.

Stewart had asked the foundation to list and describe each of the thousands of glass-plate Disfarmer negatives in the museum's collection and provide high-quality digital copies of each negative.

That's a burdensome request, according to the museum's attorneys.

"Even if discovery in this matter were governed by the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure (and it is not), Mr. Stewart's request is unreasonable, an annoyance, and unduly burdensome and expensive," according to a response signed by E. Jonathan Mader, an attorney for the foundation.

"There is nothing 'overly broad' or 'unduly burdensome' about this request," Ryan Applegate, an attorney for Stewart, wrote in a May 8 email reply to Mader.

"Additionally, said negatives and my client's ability to have a copy of the same are reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence as the originals belong to the Disfarmer estate, regardless of how your client eventually stumbled upon them," wrote Applegate. "My client is entitled to know what property of the estate your client possesses."


When Disfarmer died, he left no wife, no children and no will.

Since his death at the age of 75, Disfarmer's photographs and glass-plate negatives have become very valuable, with some prints selling for thousands of dollars.

Some of Disfarmer's descendants, including Stewart, don't like the way things have developed.

They say the contents of Disfarmer's studio -- including thousands of glass negatives -- weren't part of the probate administration of his estate 62 years ago and Disfarmer's copyrights should have been passed down to his descendants, but they weren't. Other people are profiting off their ancestor's art, they argue.

In 1977, the negatives were donated to the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, which is now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation.

Stewart, who lives near Little Rock and is Disfarmer's great-great-nephew, petitioned the Cleburne County Circuit Court in January 2021 to reopen the estate, and Judge Holly Meyer granted his request in May of 2022.

Since then, there have been few filings in the case.

According to a motion filed Monday by John E. Tull III, an attorney for the foundation, the estate served its first set of interrogatories and requests for production of documents on the foundation on March 31.

The Foundation objected, and the estate disagreed with the objection.

Besides wanting digital copies of all the negatives in the Disfarmer collection, Stewart's attorneys also asked that Stewart or one of his representatives be allowed to inspect and copy each negative at his expense.

"The Foundation sees no legal basis to change its current procedures in caring for Mr. Disfarmer's work," Mader wrote in his response to the request. "The negatives are a treasured part of the Foundation's collection."

The foundation readily admits to being in possession of the negatives in question, so there's nothing to discover here, according to Mader.

"The Foundation has never denied possessing the property that is the subject of the Estate's illicit requests for discovery," Tull wrote in his motion.

"In the end, the Estate knows that the only discovery tool available to it is useless in the circumstances because the Foundation has already admitted to possessing the property the Estate wants to claim as its own ..." wrote Tull. "The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts Foundation requests that this Court enter a protective order against further discovery efforts by the Estate against the Foundation and for all other relief to which it is entitled."


Disfarmer would charge 50 cents for three postcard-sized black-and-white prints of expressionless Arkansans standing or seated before a plain backdrop in his studio. Now, Disfarmer prints sell for thousands of dollars.

But Joe Allbright got a better deal than that.

Allbright, who would later serve as mayor of Heber Springs, bought everything in Disfarmer's studio at an estate sale in 1959 for $5, according to a brief Tull filed in the case in 2021.

After Disfarmer's death, his younger brother, Charles W. Meyers, petitioned the probate court of Cleburne County to appoint an administrator for Disfarmer's estate, wrote Tull.

Disfarmer's estate went through probate court, with the $18,146.80 he had in Arkansas National Bank being divvied up -- after claims, taxes and fees were paid -- between his three surviving siblings and the children of his other three siblings, according to Tull's brief.

That's equal to about $183,500 today, adjusted for inflation.

The estate was closed on Dec. 19, 1961, according to Tull.


In a 2021 interview, Peter Miller said he bought the negatives from Allbright in the early 1970s for $5.

Miller, who was editor of The Arkansas Sun newspaper in Heber Springs, published old photographs in the paper under the headline "Someday Your Prints Will Come." Allbright provided a few Disfarmer photos for Miller to use in his newspaper in the early 1970s.

Miller, who is now a lawyer, said bacteria was eating away at the animal-gelatin emulsion on the negatives.

Miller promised Allbright that he would restore the negatives. He contacted Kodak, and the company invited him to Rochester, N.Y., to learn the restoration process. Miller said he made the trip and stayed there for a few days.

Restoring the negatives was a tedious, yearlong procedure, he said.

Many of the negatives were beyond repair. Miller said he managed to save about 3,000 of them.

He sent some Disfarmer photos to Julia Scully, the editor of Modern Photography magazine in New York City. She published them in the magazine in 1973 and arranged for a museum show in New York.

Later, Scully and Miller worked together on the 1976 book "Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits."

Miller said the negatives he saved dated from about 1938-47. He said Disfarmer made contact prints from the 3x5-inch glass negatives, which would basically be postcard-sized.

In 1977, Miller donated about 3,000 negatives to the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation.

"The Foundation, over the last four decades, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore and preserve the negatives," wrote Tull, adding that any revenue generated from the negatives was negligible compared to the cost to preserve them.


In his petition to reopen the estate, Stewart said Disfarmer was the "sole owner of the copyrights" of his photographs at the time of his death, and those rights should have been passed on to his heirs.

"Although almost 60 years have passed since the estate was closed, the Decedent's copyright rights remain effective and will continue to be enforceable until 70 years after the author's death, which will occur in 2029," according to the petition, which cited federal copyright law.

Stewart also cited Arkansas Code Annotated § 28-53-119(a)(1) saying that, if other property of the estate is discovered after the estate is settled, "or if it appears that any necessary act remains unperformed on the part of the personal representative, or for any other proper cause," the estate may be reopened.

Originally named Mike Meyers, the photographer legally changed his name to Mike Meyer Disfarmer in 1939 in what appears to be an attempt to distance himself from his family at the time.

Believing that "meyer" meant farmer in German, he changed his name to Disfarmer, according to court records.

Some of Disfarmer's photographs can be seen at

Print Headline: Disfarmer's photos are at issue in court filing

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