A new lawsuit, filed July 27 in US District Court in Chicago, alleges that the estate of Henry Darger is illegally in the hands of his former landlord. The suit, brought by a distant relative of Darger and Darger’s estate, accuses Kiyoko Lerner, who with her now-deceased husband Nathan rented the artist an apartment in their Chicago building for decades, of illegally profiting from the sale of Darger’s work.
The Lerners beginning in the 1930s served as landlords to Darger, a recluse who worked as a hospital janitor, during which time he created numerous works of art, most famously writing and illustrating the 15,000-page-plus 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, for which he gained posthumous renown. On his death, his landlords, who by many accounts functioned as his longtime caretakers, promoted his work, raising its value significantly, and brought his name to prominence through their efforts. The American Folk Art Museum, New York, in 2001 established the Henry Darger Study Center; three years ago, Christie’s sold a double-sided illustration from In the Realms of the Unreal for $684,500, nearly $200,000 above its estimate of $500,000.
The lawsuit comes just six months after the relatives, led by lead plaintiff Christen Sadowski, filed an action in Cook County, Illinois, probate, seeking to be named the heirs to Darger’s estate. The judge in that case requested time to investigate Sadowski’s standing as an heir before the case could go ahead; this summer, he ruled that it could, and the case is pending. The new suit, leveled at Lerner and her late husband’s estate, alleges that the Lerners engaged in deceptive trade practices, unfair competition, public exhibition, distribution, and the illegal trademarking of certain works, among other violations. If the Lerners are found to be in violation of the law, they may be ordered to repay the money they gained by selling Darger’s work, though the pending case brought by other distant relatives complicates the matter.