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The Curious Case of Henry Darger

For his entire life, American artist Henry Darger was completely unknown to the outside world. He lived his life as a total shut-in, a loaner, a recluse, detached from society at large. That all changed when Darger died in 1973, and his artistic genius was uncovered and then shared with the world, garnering Darger with international fame and fortune, posthumously.

Like many great artists, Darger’s brilliance was not discovered until after his death, however, Darger’s case is especially noteworthy, since his talent was not only hidden from the general public, but from all other people, due to his extremely reclusive life.

Darger had no close family or friends to speak of, nobody to share his art with. When his artwork was finally discovered by his landlords shortly before he died, it was widely disseminated, and gained international prestige and significant value. Now, estate litigation brews between Darger’s distant relatives (who never knew him) and those who discovered, propagated and benefitted from Darger’s art in the 40 years since his death.

Darger lived his entire life in Chicago, Illinois. He was born there in 1892 and died there in 1973. Darger led a modest and isolated existence in Chicago where he worked as a custodian at a hospital and lived alone. He lost both of his parents before reaching the age of majority, he never married, he never had children. For the last 43 years of his life, he lived in a single room apartment on Chicago’s North Side.

Unbeknownst to the world, aside from his work as a janitor, Darger spent his days filling up his apartment with his artistic creations; mostly colourful illustrations and writings bound in a 15,000+ page book enclosing his works.

Darger’s works were not discovered until he was hospitalized in the year before his death and his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, entered his apartment and discovered the incredible works of art within.

The Lerners say that Darger told them, before he died, that he did not care what happened to the works, they could be discarded and that the Lerners could do whatever they liked with the art that filled Darger’s apartment to the brim.

Rather than throwing Darger’s works away and simply renting out his apartment to a new tenant as some landlords may have done, the Lerners recognized Darger’s brilliance, they brought his art to a local dealer and then spent decades fostering and growing Darger’s legacy as an “outsider artist” by publicizing his art and distributing it around the world.

His art gained international recognition and attention from the art world not only because of the fantastical beauty of his works but because of the intrigue surrounding his story as a quintessential recluse, an outsider artist.

His works are now featured prominently in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the American Folk-Art Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian. One of his illustrations sold for around $750,000 at an auction at Christie’s Paris in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, with the fame and fortune that had been impressed upon Darger’s estate, individuals claiming to be Darger’s legal descendants have recently surfaced, seeking control over Darger’s works or at least the copyright that attaches to them.

A group of approximately 50 people claiming to be Darger’s distant relatives – most of them cousins twice or three times removed, who never met Darger or even knew of him before he died – have brought a legal claim in Illinois probate court alleging that the Lerners did not have the legal right to benefit from Darger’s art, and filed a “petition for determination of heirship” in January, 2022.

A hearing in Cook County Court is now scheduled to proceed on February 23, 2022.

The Darger Estate case raises many facsinating legal questions that are now before the Illinois Probate Court. Firstly, did Darger have the requisite mental capacity to gift his works to the Lerners when he was ill and so shortly before his death? Even if he was capable of giving his art over to the Lerners, would the underlying legal copyright to the intellectual property have transferred to the Lerners as well? If not, then who is rightfully entitled as an heir of Darger’s estate to benefit from his works and/or the copyright to them? If no legal heirs existed at the time of his death, then there is a presumed chain of succession that would see Darger’s estate devolve to the State of Illinois.

It will be interesting to see how the Darger Case unfolds. Will the Lerners – who went to such great lengths over many decades to salvage, foster and broadcast Darger’s works – be deemed to have rightfully benefitted from Darger’s art? If not, then are any of the individuals now claiming to be surviving family entitled as heirs of his estate? Or, will the benefit ultimately fall to the State of Illinois?

Regardless of how this plays out, Darger’s story is unquestionably unique, and at the same time it recalls some basic lessons that estate litigation often reveals. Estate planning is crucial, well-documented communication with family, friends, acquaintances is key, and it is important for all of us, before we are gone, to turn our minds to our own legacies and think about the ways we’d like to be remembered.


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