The legal battle over the lucrative legacy of outsider artist Henry Darger has taken a new turn. A distant relative of the artist and the Estate of Henry Joseph Darger have filed legal proceedings against Darger’s former landlords, who have long been the trustees of the artist’s work. They are accused of copyright infringement, among a whole host of other misdeeds.
The lawsuit alleges that Kiyoko Lerner and her late husband Nathan illegally profited for decades from Darger’s art and writings, including his famous 15,000-page illustrated manuscript, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” despite there being no credible proof of ownership.
In 1972, Darger, a retired Chicago custodian, moved from his 40-year leased one-bedroom apartment to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged. When the Lerners, his landlords, came to clear the room, they found hundreds of drawings, watercolors and collages collected in haphazardly curated albums. Darger died a year later at the age of 81. Shortly after his death, the Lerners began promoting and selling his work.
For nearly 40 years, the Lerners have claimed that Darger left the contents of his apartment to Nathan in a verbal agreement sometime in 1972; Nathan then gave them to Kiyoko, they said. They also claimed that when Darger was preparing to move into the nursing home, they asked him if he wanted to keep anything in his apartment. In their narration, Darger replied, “I don’t have anything I need in the room. It’s all yours. You can throw everything away.” Their promotion of his work is credited with Darger’s posthumous celebration as a visionary outsider artist.
Darger never married, had no children, and died without next of kin and without a will.
The new lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, argues that the Lerners have no legal interest in his estate and must face consequences if they profit from it. The Lerners “generated tens of hundreds of millions of dollars from the unauthorized exploitation of the Darger works,” the indictment said.
The complaint raises a range of alleged wrongdoings, including deceptive business practices, unfair competition, public display, distribution, illegal trademarking of certain works, among “other violations of federal and state laws.” Kiyoko Lerner is also charged with “anticybersquatting” (registering a trademark domain name with the intent of making a profit) for “officialhenrydarger.com”. The website offers a detailed biography of Darger, as well as reproductions of his art and writings, accompanied by the warning that “images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted, or manipulated without written permission from Kiyoko Lerner.”
The lawsuit comes six months after a group of alleged relatives of Darger filed a legal claim against his estate. The family members, many of whom have cousins who have been removed several times, filed a lawsuit in January in an Illinois court to be declared heirs to his estate. They claim the landlords had no right to share or sell Darger’s art. The lawsuit is ongoing. This summer, the estates division of a Chicago court agreed to make the chief prosecutor and family representative, Christen Sadowski, the “supervised trustees of the estate.” Sadowski is now “authorized to seize and collect the estate’s assets, including the copyrights and personal property interests,” the court said.
The Lerners, who both had connections to the art world, brought the work to the attention of Chicago collector and art patron Ruth Horwich, who helped organize Darger’s first exhibition in 1977. In the 1990s, she received widespread acclaim with a solo exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. In 2008, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago opened a permanent exhibition devoted to the contents of Darger’s living and working space.
The most important – and most sought after – entries in Darger’s oeuvre are pages from seven hand-bound novels about British schoolgirls who embark on an adventure in a fantasy world ravaged by warring nations and child exploitation. It has a long title – The story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the realms of the unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian war storm caused by the Child Slave Rebellion – and a nerve-wracking juxtaposition of cheerful colors and frequent episodes of child abuse and murder. Scholarship has flooded the allegorical meaning of the story: Darger, who described himself in his biography as a “protector” of children, was an orphan and was institutionalized at a young age for behavioral problems.
The fame and market value of the enigmatic artist has continued to rise. In 2019, Christie’s sold a double-sided illustration of In the realms of the unreal for $684,500, well above the $500,000 estimate, which the lawsuit cites as evidence that the Lerners are benefiting from Darger’s work.
If the Lerners are deemed to have broken the law, they could be ordered to recover the proceeds from Darger’s estate, but given the separate lawsuit from Darger’s potential heirs, it is unclear how the profits would be distributed.