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 a legal action against Darger’s former landlords, who have been the longtime stewards of the artist’s work. They are accused of copyright infringement, among a slew of other wrongdoing.
The suit alleges that Kiyoko Lerner and her late husband Nathan have for decades been illegally profiting from Darger’s art and writings, including his famed 15,000-page illustrated manuscript, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” despite no credible evidence of ownership.
In 1972, Darger, a retired Chicago custodian moved out of his rented one-bedroom apartment of 40 years to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged. When the Lerners, his landlords, came to empty the room, they found hundreds of drawings, watercolors, and collages collected in haphazardly constructed albums. Darger died a year later at age 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 subsequently 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 would like to keep anything in his apartment. In their telling, Darger replied, “I have nothing I need in the room. It is 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 with no immediate surviving relatives and no will.
The new lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, asserts that the Lerners have no legal stake to his legacy and should face consequences for profiting off it. The Lerners “have generated tens of hundreds of millions of dollars from the unauthorized exploitation of the Darger works,” the complaint reads.
The complaint provides a battery of alleged wrongdoing, including deceptive trade practices, unfair competition, public exhibition, distribution, illegally trademarking certain works, among “other violations of federal and state law.” Kiyoko Lerner is also accused of “anticybersquatting” (registering a domain name of a trademark with the intent of making a profit of it) for “officialhenrydarger.com.” The website provides 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 of Kiyoko Lerner.”
The lawsuit comes six months after a group of Darger’s purported relatives made a legal claim to his legacy. The relatives, many of them cousins several times removed, filed an action in an Illinois probate court in January seeking to be declared the heirs to his estate. They assert that the landlords had no right to share or sell Darger’s art. The suit is ongoing. This summer, the probate division of a Chicago court agreed to make the lead plaintiff and representative of the family, Christen Sadowski, the “supervised administrators of the estate.” Sadowski is now “authorized to take possession of and collect the assets of the Estate, including its copyright and personal property interests,” according to court.
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. Widespread acclaim came in the 1990s with a solo show 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 dedicated to the contents of Darger’s living and working space.
The most significant—and sought-after—entries in Darger’s oeuvre are pages from seven hand-bound novels about British school girls adventuring in a fantasy world beset by warring nations and child exploitation. It has a lengthy 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 an unnerving juxtaposition of cheerful colors and frequent episodes of the abuse and murder of children. Scholarship has poured over the allegorical significance of the story: Darger, who described himself in his biography as a “protector” of children, was an orphan and institutionalized at a young age for behavior issues.
The enigmatic artist’s notoriety and market value has continued to rise. In 2019, Christie’s sold a double-sided illustration from In the Realms of the Unreal for $684,500, well above its estimate of $500,000, which the lawsuit cites as evidence of the Lerners’ profiting off Darger’s work.
If the Lerners are deemed to have violated the law, they could be ordered to recoup the proceeds to Darger’s estate, but given the separate lawsuit of Darger’s would-be heirs, it’s unclear how the profits would be shared.