A Judge Tells Relatives of Henry Darger That There Are ‘Lots of Holes’ in Their Claim to the Late Artist’s Estate

Distant relatives of the artist have stepped forward with a claim for control of the estate.

Henry Darger, Untitled (after 1953). © 2021 Kiyoko Lerner. Courtesy of AFAM.

A court hearing to determine the rightful heirs to the estate of reclusive Chicago artist Henry Darger, who died in 1973, has been delayed until May while the judge reviews documents brought by distant heirs of the artist.

Christen Sadowski, one of the heirs, is seeking to wrest control of the estate from Darger’s former Wicker Park landlords, who have been the longtime stewards of the artist’s work.

At a hearing yesterday, the probate judge said there were “lots of holes” in the family’s court documents and that he needed time to review Sadowski’s standing as an heir, according to the New York Times. “At this moment, I don’t believe your client has standing in order to find that she’s an heir,” he said.

“This is the result we wanted for our client,” said Eric Kalnins, an attorney for the landlord, Kiyoko Lerner.

Sadowski’s team says they remain undeterred. “The judge gave us the opportunity to amend and to provide additional evidence including affidavits and testimony,” Marcus Harris, attorney for the heirs, 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.”

For more than 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, Darger lived in a building owned by Kiyoko and her late husband, Nathan. “Darger was a loner, unkempt and worked as a hospital janitor and a dishwasher,” according to Lerner’s court filing. “He had no visitors to his apartment. Throughout his life, Lerner and her husband, Nathan, would look after the reclusive Darger, making sure that he had food or living arrangements that suited his physical limitations.”

Unbeknownst to anyone, Darger authored several books and made hundreds of collages and drawings. In an affidavit, Kiyoko said that Darger gave all his belongings to Nathan one year before he died and that Nathan subsequently gave them to Kiyoko. Darger moved out of the apartment and into a nursing home around the same time, according to the court papers.

The Darger heirs, who the Times described as first cousins twice or three times removed, were initially contacted by Chicago photography dealer Ron Slattery and his wife. They said they noticed that the Lerners kept reiterating the narrative that Darger had no family but that even a cursory search proved otherwise. “We just gave the family all of the information and now they’re running with it,” Slattery told Artnet News.

He is not involved in the legal proceedings. “It’s their thing and it should be their thing. They always should have been involved in the first place.”

Lerner said through her and her Nathan’s efforts, Darger’s work gained international recognition. It is part of permanent museum collections in Chicago, New York, Paris, and Switzerland. The artist’s current auction record, set at Christie’s Paris in 2014, is $745,000 (€601,500), for a large double-sided watercolor (1940-1960). According to the Artnet Price Database, a total of 33 Darger works have been offered at auction. Three were unsold, and the lowest price recorded was $10,350 for a 1960 pencil and watercolor on paper sold at Sotheby’s in 1994.

Art dealer Andrew Edlin, who was the exclusive dealer for Darger’s estate from 2006 to 2010, told Artnet News that “It is my hope, as a layperson, that common sense will prevail and things appear to be headed in that direction.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.