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Detail from Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls. Photo: Insignifica/Flickr.
Detail from Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls. Photo: Insignifica/Flickr.

Henry Darger Estate Hearing Halted Amid Credibility Concerns

A hearing to determine who owns the rights to the estate of the late artist Henry Darger (1892–1973) has been put on pause as the court investigates the credibility of distant relatives laying claim to the estate. The New York Times reported that Judge Kent Delgado of the probate court in Cook County, Illinois, where the case is being heard, described the court documents presented by Darger relative Christen Sadowski as “full of holes.” Delgado declared that he would need to investigate her standing as an heir before the case could proceed.

Darger, who worked as a hospital janitor, for decades lived a reclusive life in Chicago, during which time he wrote and illustrated 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 and by many accounts caretakers of more than four decades, photographer Nathan Lerner and his wife, Kiyoko Lerner, assumed control of his estate, promoting his work, raising its value significantly, and bringing his name to prominence. The American Folk Art Museum, New York, in 2001 established the Henry Darger Study Center.

In recent years, Chicago art collector Ron Slattery tracked down Darger’s relatives, cousins twice or three times removed. Sadowski is leading the suit on behalf of other family members. With Nathan Lerner dead, Kiyoko Lerner is defending her claim to the estate, which she told the Times she had learned about not directly but through that newspaper.

Despite the setback, Darger’s relatives remain optimistic. “The judge gave us the opportunity to amend and to provide additional evidence including affidavits and testimony,” their attorney, Marcus Harris, told Artnet News. “The ultimate goal is to have some control over the work and get that control back into the family where they think it really belongs.”