Who Owns Artist Henry Joseph Darger's Copyrights: His Landlords Or His Distant Cousins?

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal,Illinois
Law FirmFrankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz
Subject MatterIntellectual Property, Copyright
AuthorMr Brian Murphy
Published date25 April 2023

Fame came to Henry Joseph Darger (1892-1973) - widely regarded as one of America's greatest self-taught artists - posthumously. In life, he was a recluse, and his genius and prodigious output went undetected. Today, his works hang in the permanent collections of MOMA, the American Folk Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago; his illustrations routinely sell for six figures; and exhibitions have been mounted about his influence on other artists.

A case in the Northern District of Illinois raises the question of who should get to control the artist's valuable copyrights (and, to some degree, his legacy). Should it be the landlords who discovered (and salvaged) his work and have been championing it ever since? Or the artist's distant relatives who came forward to stake a claim only recently, nearly half a century after the artist died intestate?

Background

Between 1930 and 1973, Darger lived in a boarding house on Chicago's North Side owned by Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner. During his four decades in residence, Darger created a massive trove of literary and artistic works, including his magnum opus 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, a 15,000-page epic fantasy manuscript, with approximately 300 illustrations, about a civil war between children and abusive adults.

When Darger became too ill to continue living on his own, he moved to a nursing home. According to Kiyoko Lerner, her husband Nathan visited Darger shortly before he died to discuss the possessions left behind in the apartment he would never occupy again:

"Nathan asked him at one point if he needed anything from his room because Nathan wanted to clean up the room in order to remodel the third floor as one apartment for a better income. He replied, 'I have nothing I need in the room. It is all yours. You can throw everything away.' With this permission, we started to clean up his room."

In the process of cleaning out the room, the Lerners discovered Darger's works (and removed a lot of trash, including 80 bottles of Pepto Bismol). Without the Lerners, these works likely would have ended up in a landfill.

In June 2022 - 49 years after Darger died - a probate court in Cook County approved Christen Sadowski to be the administrator of Darger's estate and gave him the green light to begin the process of collecting the estate's assets on behalf of approximately 50 heirs (most of them...

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