Who owns the work of Chicago artist Henry Darger?

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Reclusive caretaker Henry Darger spent more than 40 years in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park writing, painting, sketching, collecting and fantasizing.

It was only after his death in 1973 that his works, discovered by his landlords, trickled into the Chicago art scene, with his imaginative stories and sometimes violent imagery eventually gaining worldwide recognition – and skyrocketing value.

Now, almost half a century later, a simmering legal battle over the rights to Darger’s legacy has landed in Chicago federal court, where a lawsuit was filed by his estate this week, accusing the landlords of copyright infringement.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, names Kiyoko Lerner and her husband Nathan’s estate, who together have rented the third-story room of their walk-in home on West Webster Avenue to Darger since the 1930s.

According to the lawsuit, the Lerners have illegally benefited from Darger’s works, including his massive 15,000-page illustrated manuscript In the Realms of the Unreal, for nearly five decades, although they have no claim as heirs. Nathan Lerner, a photographer and industrial designer who first promoted Darger’s work, died in 1997.

The lawsuit comes six months after several alleged relatives of Darger, all first cousins ​​removed several times, filed a lawsuit in Cook County probate court to be declared heirs to his estate. This lawsuit is still pending.

The Lerners have long maintained that before his death, Darger realized he didn’t care what happened to his work. An attorney representing Kiyoko Lerner in the probate matter did not respond to calls for comment.

Darger’s backstory as a lonely and obscure artist rising to posthumous fame bears a striking resemblance to Vivian Maier, the Chicago-area nanny who only became one of the world’s most renowned street photographers after her discarded images were stored in an old locker were discovered.

As in Darger’s case, Maier, who died in 2009, was a pack rat and a recluse who never attempted to publish her work in her life. But the accidental discovery of tens of thousands of Maier’s negatives led to a chaotic legal battle over her suddenly lucrative estate, including an exhaustive search for a rightful heir.

The Cook County public trustee eventually took over Maier’s affairs and filed a similar copyright lawsuit in the Dirksen US Courthouse against some of those who benefited from the photos.

Meanwhile, the copyright dispute over Darger’s estate has ties to the same Chicago collector, Ron Slattery, who was one of the first to buy Maier’s photographic negatives. Slattery told The New York Times in February that he took it upon himself to track down some of Darger’s relatives and showed them a 2019 article in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property that claimed the rights to the Darger estate in question were asked.

“After all the research, it just seemed like the right thing to do,” Slattery told the Times. “How can you just leave it like that?”

Slattery did not return calls Friday for comment.

By now, the story of Darger’s unlikely rise to world fame is well known. After being born in Chicago in 1892, his mother died when he was 4 years old. His father, a tailor, struggled with health problems. After having behavior problems at school, Darger was sent to what was then the Illinois Asylum for Invalid Children in Lincoln State.

Darger later incorporated many of his experiences in the institution, including children subjected to child labor and severe punishment, into his art. After his father’s death in 1908, Darger fled the facility and went 160 miles back to Chicago, where he found work as a janitor at a Catholic hospital. Apart from a brief stint in the military during World War I, it would remain his profession for the next 50 years.

In 1930, Darger began renting a large room on the third floor of a brick house on W. Webster Ave. 851 for rent. He had lived there for nearly 30 years when Nathan Lerner bought the building in the late 1950’s. In the 2004 documentary The Realms of the Unreal, Kiyoko Lerner and others who had contact with Darger in his later years recalled him as quiet and headstrong, detached from reality in many ways but not dangerous.

According to the documentary, he was obsessed with the weather and a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines. Wearing the same worn army coat, he could often be seen slinking through the alleys near the apartment, scavenging for collectibles in the garbage. At night, when he came home from work, neighbors would hear voices coming from his room, like a large group of people having a boisterous discussion. It was Darger, immersed in his world and talking to himself.

In the mid-1960s, after being forced to quit his job due to ill health, Darger spent virtually his entire life in this room. There he continued to work on his life’s work, the fantasy story of the Vivian Girls, seven Christian princesses who join a bloody rebellion against child slaves. The work, which eventually filled some 15,145 typed pages, is illustrated with hundreds of painted scenes, drawings, and stencils depicting serene landscapes and mystical creatures, coupled with terrifying images of young children being tortured and murdered.

By early 1973, Darger was too ill to live alone and was transferred to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged, the same facility where his father had died. When the Lerners and some neighbors went into his room to start clearing out his belongings, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

“I distinctly remember walking up those narrow stairs and stepping into a whole new world,” Lynne Warren, then-neighbor and art student, told the Tribune in 2000. “I really felt like I got into Henry’s mind.”

On an iron bed rested the volumes that make up In the Realms of the Unreal. Also found were Darger’s detailed memoirs, a meticulously kept weather journal, and decades-old newspaper clippings of disasters and missing or killed children pinned to the wall.

“We were stunned,” Kiyoko Lerner told the Tribune. “We didn’t know what to make of it.”

David Berglund, a tenant of the building, said he recalled visiting Darger in hospital before his death and praising his old neighbor’s work.

“He looked at me like I punched him,” Berglund recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘It’s too late now. It belongs to Mr. Lerner.’”

Darger died on April 13, 1973. He is buried in All Saints Cemetery, Des Plaines, where his headstone reads “Protector of Children.”

Nathan Lerner saw the potential in Darger’s work and used his connections to the Chicago art world to spark interest. They preserved Darger’s room and invited artists and students to delve into the dense and mysterious creations.

Four years after Darger’s death, his work was first shown in an exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, but international recognition only came in the 1990s with an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. Since then, Darger has been recognized as one of the world’s leading “outsider” artists, and his work has inspired poetry, an opera and even a rock band called the Vivian Girls.

Of course, with fame came the inevitable dollar signs, and Darger’s work, particularly the illustrations, fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at art house auctions.

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The value continues to this day. According to the lawsuit, Christie’s auction house estimated the sale price for a page of In the Realms of the Unreal to be between $200,000 and $400,000. The painting sold for $675,000.

The lawsuit alleged that the Lerners have “generated tens of millions of dollars through the unauthorized exploitation of Darger’s works” over the years.

But even if the Lerners were found to have broken the law, how much could be recouped for Darger’s estate – and who would share the proceeds – is still a very bleak picture. In Cook County Probate Court, Judge Kent Delgado has granted the petitioners an extension to prove their claim as Darger’s legal heirs in what can be a lengthy process.

Meanwhile, much of the contents of Darger’s old room on West Webster Avenue, preserved by the Lerners, are now on display at Intuit: the center for intuitive and external arts on Chicago’s Near West Side.

But the room itself is long gone. In 2000, Kiyoko Lerner’s stepson, Michael, told the Tribune that he was giving the building a thorough makeover, with Darger’s room serving as the master suite.

The building was sold for $2 million in 2006, records show.

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