A Hermit's Art Is Famous Due to His Landlords. Who Owns It?

That question, specifically about Henry Darger, will get its day in court
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 13, 2022 5:40 PM CST
Do the Landlords Who Saved a Hermit's Art Own It?
Henry Darger's work is in the Museum of Modern Art's collection, along with the collections of other high-profile institutions.   (Getty Images)

As far as outsider—or self-taught—artists go, Henry Darger is one of the greats. The Chicago janitor lived as a hermit and died in 1973 at age 81, "leaving a single room crammed with his colorful illustrations, a 15,000-page book, and no immediate surviving relatives," reports the New York Times. That his work made it to the public eye—and, later, institutions as esteemed as the Museum of Modern Art—and became valued enough to fetch prices as high as $800,000, is due to his landlords. The late Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko, have championed (and profited off of) his work all these years. But now, distant relatives have come out of the woodwork.

Darger spent the last year of his life in a nursing home, and rather than empty the contents of his apartment into the dumpster, the Lerners showed the work to a collector who helped pave the way for the first exhibition of Darger's work in 1977. They've been handling the work for decades. But now those relatives have emerged, drawn out by the Chicago collector Ron Slattery, who is of the opinion that artists’ estates should be entrusted to their legal descendants. He tracked down a group of largely first cousins twice or three times removed and pointed them to a 2019 article in the Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property that argued Kiyoko Lerner's "title to the copyrights is contestable." Some 50 relatives in January filed a "petition for determination of heirship" in an Illinois probate court. A hearing will take place Feb. 23. (Read the full article to learn about Darger's "fanciful and violent" work.)

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