Who owns Henry Darger’s artwork and writings? Cook County judge wants more information from potential relatives

Christen Sadowski, of Clarendon Hills, claims to be a distant relative of the reclusive artist and wants to be appointed a representative of dozens of potential heirs.

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A small and incredibly cluttered room belonging to reclusive Chicago writer-artist Henry Darger is seen as it was reassembled and on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art on Tuesday, May 6, 2008,

A small and incredibly cluttered room belonging to reclusive Chicago writer-artist Henry Darger is seen as it was reassembled and on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

AP file

It took almost 50 years for the matter of who legally owns the late Henry Darger’s artwork and writings to end up in court.

It doesn’t appear that the issue will be resolved anytime soon after a brief hearing at the Daley Center on Wednesday.

Circuit Judge Kent Delgado told lawyers representing a Clarendon Hills woman claiming to be a distant relative of the reclusive artist — and who wants a portion of his assets — that her legal filing is full of “holes.”

Delgado gave Christen Sadowski’s attorneys until late May to refile their paperwork. Among his concerns, Delgado said, is that Sadowski has no “personal knowledge” that she is a Darger relative and is relying on the research of an “heir finder” service. Delgado said he’s anticipating a hearing on that matter.

Sadowski is seeking to be appointed a representative of dozens of potential Darger relatives, several of whom were listening in on the livestreamed hearing.

The next hearing in the case is set for May 24.

Darger spent 40 years living alone in a one-room North Side apartment, moving to a nursing home in 1972 shortly before he died. Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, say they discovered his artwork and writings only after he moved out. Nathan Lerner is no longer living, but Kiyoko Lerner, a classical pianist, insists that Darger gave all of his possessions to her husband and that he gave them to her upon his death.

“Darger was an unknown at the time of his death and buried in a pauper’s cemetery ... . However, solely through my and my husband’s efforts, his works have become part of museum collections in Chicago, New York, Paris and Switzerland, and Darger is now recognized throughout the world,” Kiyoko Lerner’s attorney wrote in a motion opposing the relatives’ petition.

Lerner was not present during the hearing. She now lives in Japan, according to one of her attorneys.

Ron and Fawn Slattery were among those listening to the hearing Wednesday. Vintage photography collectors, the Slatterys were the ones who originally tracked down Sadowski’s family in 2019 to alert them to their possible connection to Darger. Ron Slattery is originally from Chicago.

The Slatterys, who split time between Las Vegas and New Brunswick, Canada, say they have never met the Lerners but feel they shouldn’t profit from Darger’s talent.

“The Lerners took something that was obviously fantastic and broke it apart; they didn’t keep it together and try to bring it to a museum and say, ‘Take all this.’ It was shortly monetized,” Ron Slattery said Wednesday after the hearing.

In court, one of Kiyoko Lerner’s attorneys, Eric Kalnins, accused lawyers for the potential relatives of sending Lerner “threatening letters” that “severely hurt her reputation in our community and her property with regards to this matter, hurting the pricing and the value of this artwork.”

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